Statue of Liberty, New York, NY August 2010

The recent hysteria over a strict anti-immigration law in Arizona, the questioning of the guarantees of citizenship implicit in the 14th amendment and the backlash across the nation over the approval of the construction plans for an Islamic community center near Ground Zero all beg the same question— What does it mean to be an American?

Are we a nation of tolerance for all religions, freedom of expression and kindness towards our neighbors?  Are we a nation fortified by our ethnic heritage and diversity? Are we a “melting pot” today where children are born of different ethnicities, speaking different languages, practicing different religions—all growing up in the US and managing to co-exist as friends on kick ball teams, as roommates in college and as professionals in the work force?

Laws and policies shaped by zealous emotional currents will never create a society that is fair and equal. Hard-working immigrants who traveled here with the hope of pursuing freedom and a better life have built our nation.  As other countries around the world turn their backs to Muslim immigrants, it is time for America to stand true to its value as a nation where refugees and those seeking a better life can prosper and live happily. As Thomas Friedman recently stated, “Countries that choke themselves off from exposure to different cultures, faiths and ideas will never invent the next Google or a cancer cure, let alone export a musical or body of literature that would bring enjoyment to children everywhere.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent anti-immigrant comments made in regard to the shootings in Grenoble, France display a sense of cultural ignorance. His immediate reaction was to place the blame for his country’s lack of control over local crime on fifty years of immigration.  His sweeping accusations demonstrate a wave of thinking that does not base its beliefs on values such as freedom and opportunity for all and instead cowers behind attitudes of prejudice and self-righteousness. Europe today faces problems stemming from an influx of immigrant groups post-WWII and the lack of effective integration programs to shape these communities’ assimilation. A strategy aimed at inclusion, not exclusion, might have made for a better public policy choice in Europe. We have the opportunity to learn from their collective experiences and to change our policy now to avoid segregating American society into “them” and “us”.

I recently had the privilege of throwing a baby shower for an American-born Iraqi baby in Nashville, Tennessee. The father was a translator who worked with the American forces in Fallujah and Baghdad in Iraq and whose identity had been compromised and thereafter, his life threatened. My Iraqi friend relocated to the US through the Special Immigrant Visa program and within months of arriving, their baby was born on Thanksgiving Day.

It truly was a thankful thanksgiving. This newly minted American citizen will grow up one day, proud of her country and proud to be an American.

America is about liberty, justice and equality. Let’s not forget that.

– Rachel Gore,  Human Rights Lawyer and Volunteer with the List Project

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