This blog first appeared in Huffington Post, July 3 2012
When I was an illegal immigrant I celebrated Independence Day as if it were a spiritual holiday. In the charged rhetoric about Latino immigration our national conversation could benefit from re-imagining our unalienable rights. Our values and moral compass would be deepened by viewing the pursuit of life, liberty and justice through the lens of our mutual pursuit of inter-dependence.
Now a citizen of this country, my pride in being part of the American enterprise of democracy is shaped by how I experienced the United States as an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1970s. The Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights as a touchstone of U.S. foreign policy filled many of us fighting oppressive regimes with hope and inspiration. Advocating for human rights abroad needs to become part of a seamless approach including the inalienable rights of those within the United States.
After receiving notice that my application for residency had been denied, a seasoned immigration attorney advised me to go about my life in New York while he resolved the issue. He told me that because I was not Latino or a black West African immigrant I had little to fear about being identified as illegal. It was a startling insight to me in the mid-1980s. Sadly it is still true for many whose lives are a vital part of our country.
As my illegal alien status was reviewed I wondered if the “self-evident truths” that all “are created equal” came with a double standard. Today, the twelve million undocumented Latino immigrants who are among the core workforce of the agricultural and hospitality industries continue to live with an abiding fear of the implications of inequality.
The ideal and promise of equality is more than a holy grail. Our founding document galvanizes the aspirations and hopes of immigrants and new citizens. We believe in the promise. Like U.S. citizens, we do not wish for a promised land in some after-life. We expect to be full citizens, inter-dependent with Americans of every stripe in the present, rather than cheap shots for uncourageous hapless leaders.
Foreigners often observe that Americans are self-absorbed and engaged in the enterprise of self. In contrast to many places around the world, from Iran to North Korea, the individual pursuit of life, liberty and happiness is a cherished defining value of being an American. The Founding Fathers had a perspective much larger than libertarianism or narcissism.
The final paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is seldom quoted and not well known. “With a firm reliance on Divine Providence we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortune and our sacred honor.” The signers understood that we are all in this together — this building and renewing of the world’s most envied democratic endeavor. Our collective struggles over slavery, women’s suffrage and civil rights all tested, challenged and enriched the promise of July 4th. The struggles for gender equality, LGBT rights and those of Muslim-Americans along with Latino immigration continue to invite us to a discourse that has the potential to reveal the vibrancy of our democracy.
The “mutual pledge to each other” of the Declaration of Independence becomes more deeply valued, even sacred, when we expand our understanding of who among us is fully included in the American promise. The full inclusion of all probes the promises that undergird our July 4th barbecues and parades.
I was one of the fortunate few provided with a first class immigration attorney whose skill transformed my “illegal alien” status to “resident alien” on my eventual path to U.S. citizenship. It does not matter what sort of “alien” you are called, you are effectively labeled separate, different and not “one of us.”
The mutual pledging of our lives, fortune and honor to one another is how the signers of the Declaration of Independence concluded their vision of who we would become as a new independent nation. That promise is as urgent today as it was then.
Instead of replacing our unique emphasis on individual liberty, we enrich it by seeking a politics of commonalities. In an increasingly diverse United States, a commitment to honor the dignity of our differences deepens the values of our founding principles.
July Fourth reverberates with the promises of many wisdom traditions which speak about the sacredness and inestimable value of every human being. American ingenuity combined with the self evident truths which shape us demand a richer, fuller and more vibrant understanding of who is part of America. The Founding Fathers might be surprised by including Latino immigrants into our common life. They would surely smile on the courage, leadership and vibrancy of revisiting the mutual pledge to who we are in this democracy. What remains to be seen is if we have leaders who are up to such a courageous and fulsome vision.
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