Some reflections on my first Fourth of July spent as a permanent resident of the United States of America
Today I spent my first Fourth of July, my first Independence Day, as a permanent resident of the United States of America. After receiving my long-awaited US green card I finally came to call America my home when I landed in Los Angeles on 25th May, and since that time have been staying with my wife’s family in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas while I wait for law school to begin in September. So now here I am, a British expat living in America on the day when everyone around me celebrates casting off the yoke of the British Crown.
We live in a time when it is fashionable (among some circles) to imagine that immigrants in general are persecuted and threatened to an unprecedented degree – largely thanks to a deliberate, concerted effort by many politicians and journalists to erase any distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, economic migrants and refugees, otherwise law-abiding illegal aliens and determined criminals. And spurred on by this delusion, many American politicians, particularly those of the Left, are presently burnishing their reputations (or in some cases their presidential aspirations) by claiming to speak for me and others who, like me, were not born in the United States.
From these liberal saviors, I learn that I am presently under attack; that I apparently feel despised, devalued, belittled and threatened, both by the elected head of state, those who support him and indeed anyone who does not support tearing down the entire immigration system and even the concept of national borders itself. All this I must feel deep in my subconscious, because as a mixed-race man who has travelled through some thirteen of these United States (many of them staunchly Republican states in the Midwest) I have known nothing but friendliness and an abiding, sometimes overwhelming hospitality. But clearly the liberal saviors know best, and in reality I live my life in permanent fear of verbal abuse, physical assault or deportation, even though I don’t realise it.
My point is not to relitigate the immigration debate here, or to point out the calculated cynicism of portraying arguably overzealous action against illegal immigrants as some kind of assault on all immigrants or a betrayal of America’s founding values. I write these words simply to put on record that I and millions of my fellow immigrants seek to make our home in the United States (legally or illegally) because we believe this to be a good country and a shining city on a hill, not the newly-opened fascist hellmouth which many decent Americans have been wrongly deceived into viewing their own country.
One thing which conservatives seem to “get” instinctively while those on the Left struggle to understand is that America is and always has been greater than the sum of her contemporary government. We see the same phenomenon in my native Britain, where many on the Left denigrate their homeland endlessly and are confounded that anyone might admire the United Kingdom, simply because they themselves take exception to the present Conservative government, or to the 2016 referendum’s decision to leave the European Union. And here in America I hear from many people, including some of my own left-leaning friends, that they see little good about the United States at present. When attempting to justify this statement, most point to the Trump administration’s perceived treatment of minorities and immigrants. More than one have confessed to me that they feel unable to celebrate their country’s Independence Day as a consequence.
To them and all those who feel similarly, I can only say: not in my name. Do not think less of your country or refuse to celebrate her independence thinking that you are acting in solidarity with me or any other immigrant, legal or illegal. We choose to come to this country believing it to be inherently good, not fundamentally bad. Ignore the buzzword-laden screeds of academics and activists steeped in toxic and divisive identity politics, who never tire of claiming that contemporary America is built on white supremacy and that systemic racism is a feature, not a bug, in this country’s basic source code. They could not be more wrong.
We immigrants understand that America is flawed like every other country, but is also a work in progress toward a noble goal which few other countries even bother to write down and set as a target, let alone strive to achieve – the creation of a country whose government is predicated on the belief that all men are created equal, and free. We immigrants understand that perhaps unique among nations, America is rooted in an idea, not an ethnicity or landmass, and that this idea will persevere and survive a demagogic authoritarian president just as it has survived the suave technocrats and neoconservative nation-builders who came before.
For the record: I opposed Donald Trump during his presidential campaign and have long realised the danger posed by an authoritarian executive branch aided by a supine Republican Congress. These dangers are not to be underestimated, and indeed are the very reason why the Founding Fathers sought to build separation of powers and the checks and balances of strong, rival institutions into the fabric of American government. I am also on record opposing Donald Trump’s often racism-tinged rhetoric, his grievous temperamental flaws and the harsh manner of his administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration and asylum processing. I have frequently written that at a time when advanced Western countries must adapt to the future, a leader who explicitly promises to make America great *again* and roll the clock back economically is a huge step in the wrong direction. Indeed, there are few people I would want to see in the Oval Office less than Donald J. Trump.
And yet here I am, a newly-minted green card holder and immigrant to the United States, because I know that this country is far bigger than the shrinking moral and intellectual footprint of the American presidency. I mourned Donald Trump’s election victory and fear for some of the near-term consequences of electing such a man as leader, but not for a second did I question my desire to emigrate and leave Britain, my beloved home, for the United States.
Shortly after having left London back in March, I wrote a piece attempting to explain why this is the case:
America may not be the country it once was in terms of the richness and profundity of its civic life (though this is not to dismiss the great and necessary advances in civil rights and equality) since many of its greatest thinkers left the stage, but it is a darn sight healthier than contemporary Britain.
Interventionism versus non-interventionism? That debate burns more brightly in America because it is the United States which must do the bulk of intervening in an age of parsimonious European retrenchment. Healthcare reform? The American system may exist primarily to make Britain’s NHS look good by comparison, but at least radical healthcare reform is possible in the United States, unlike Britain where NHS worship is a mandatory religion for those in power. Education? The federal system and greater role for local government in America means that far more experimentation with new policies and technologies can take place than in Britain, where “postcode lotteries” are feared and policy competition is severely limited. The benefits and costs of laissez-faire social liberalism? Nearly all of the most thoughtful writing can be found in American journals, not the incestuous British publications.
And in conclusion:
I will never stop following or writing about British politics, and this blog continues. Britain is my homeland, a place towards which I will always retain a deep attachment and where I will undoubtedly spend some future years raising a family – and indeed, one of the unique selling points of this blog – I hope – is my ability to provide a familiar Brit’s perspective on American politics and a (nearly) American perspective on British politics, which would make unplugging from the debate quite counterproductive to my work.
But since Britain has repeatedly shown itself to be disinterested in domestic or global leadership of any kind, my focus will naturally gravitate more toward the politics of my new adopted home, a country which despite its many dysfunctions still retains that optimism and self-belief that matters debated and decisions made in America can shape the world for the better.
Coming from another economically advanced country, it was not the prospect of a higher standard of living which led me to America – it was the kaleidoscopic culture, the endless variety, the sheer vastness of geography and opportunity, the freedom and (as someone interested in public policy) the fact that ideas and policies debated in America still matter and have the potential to shape the world for the better. How much more of an incentive is it then to come from a poorer country, where in addition to gaining the civil liberties and rights guaranteed under the Constitution one also stands to become immeasurably wealthier? And we immigrants are supposed to lose sight of these blessings and require additional support and encouragement because of an intemperate tweet or malicious statement from the temporary custodian of one of the three branches of American government?
I remember the interview for my green card at the US embassy in London like it was yesterday. Overprepared and unreasonably nervous, carrying far more supporting documentation and evidence than the already-onerous consular list required, I arrived early and sat on a park bench with my rosary in hand, under the statue of President Eisenhower, waiting to be admitted to the stentorious Eero Saarinen-designed embassy building (now replaced with a nondescript glass cube south of the River Thames). After a short wait I was called to hand in my documents, have my fingerprints taken and pay the remaining (significant) fees which legal immigrants are required to pay, and then waited again for the interview itself. The interview took place at a counter window much like a bank, and was over within five minutes and the answering of a few basic questions. I seem to remember asking the consular officer more than once to confirm that my application had been approved after he told me that I was “good to go”, so elated was I to be in possession of the immigrant visa I have wanted for well over half my life.
Of course, going through the process also made me very aware that it is not so easy or straightforward for everyone who wants to come to the United States. I applied for and received my green card through marriage to a US citizen; others without existing family ties, capital to invest or lucrative high-skilled jobs lined up often find it much harder, even impossible, to immigrate legally. I have sympathy for many of those who come to the United States illegally or overstay their time-limited visas, and can certainly envision myself in a similar position were my own circumstances different. Furthermore, some people now in the United States illegally live lives of otherwise-model citizenship which put many natural-born Americans and legal immigrants to shame.
That being said, the rule of law must be defended if it is to have meaning and authority, and a nation without borders is no nation at all. Uncontrolled flows of human migration can be economically disruptive and culturally destabilising, and it is in no way extremist to point out that not everybody who wants to emigrate to America can be allowed to do so. I would love to see sensible immigration form enacted, with protected status given to the many millions presently here illegally (all of whom cannot be deported without enormous economic damage and social unrest) in exchange for serious improvements in border security and enforcement, and a genuine effort to have a democratically responsive immigration policy reflective of the balance of public opinion. I abhor the ideologues on both sides, the open borders fanatics who seem to be taking over the Democratic Party and the unrealistic zero-tolerance hardline conservatives who scupper any effort at compromise.
To those who see the election of Donald Trump as some kind of negative turning point in America’s attitude toward immigration or immigrants, I would counsel that this belief stems largely from the arrogance of having assumed that there was a prior consensus when in reality there were a multitude of voices and opinions, ranging from genuine racists and xenophobes at one extreme through those opposed to uncontrolled mass immigration or those who simply believe that the rule of law and national borders ought to mean something in the reasonable center. One can perhaps argue that it is a shame that these more cautious or negative voices are now being heard and getting a hearing from the White House, but they are not new and they did not begin with Donald Trump. Opposition to illegal immigration is rooted in the successive failure of politicians to reform a broken immigration system – Donald Trump’s demagoguery on the subject is little more than the political cowardice and lack of ambition of past administrations personified.
Here in McAllen, Texas there are lessons to be learned for Trump supporters and devout open borders leftists alike. Here is a thriving town and region strongly shaped by immigration from Mexico and central Americas, which frequently displays the full richness of that cultural inheritance, but which at the same time remains resolutely and unashamedly American. Here you may well hear Mariachi music at Sunday Mass or read bilingual or Spanish language advertisements in the newspaper, hear Tejano music on the local radio or see clothes stores selling Quinceañera dresses, but the same people who consume these services also recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school, stand for the national anthem at sports games, serve in the US military or local police force and gather with family and friends to barbecue, watch fireworks and celebrate their country’s Independence Day.
In this town I have heard white girls singing along to Selena, watched people of all ethnicities gorge themselves on some of the best Tex-Mex and Mexican food to be had, and witnessed an elderly Hispanic veteran point to Donald Trump’s autobiography in the bargain bin at Sam’s Club and tell me with fervor in his voice that “this man is going to save America”. People do not fit into the neat, pure little categories created by the partisan extremists fuelling our ongoing, self-destructive culture war. America contains multitudes, and so do individual Americans.
These are not contradictions for most people here. The cognitive dissonance only exists for Trumpian hardliners who struggle to accept any Hispanic influence or cultural accommodation on the one hand, and open borders extremists who tend to hate the very idea of the nation state (or at least the United States) and who think that assimilation into the host culture is some kind of betrayal or prima facie evidence of white supremacist oppression. And on and on these two sides go, the ugly extremes dominating our politics and cultural discourse, while the broad mass of ordinary Americans simply want to get on with their lives.
I have spent this Fourth of July celebrating the independence of the country I now call home, and I have done so in a border town which is happy, prosperous and (from everything my inquisitive eye has observed) largely at ease with itself. Some 84 percent of McAllen’s residents have Hispanic or Latino heritage. Many on the progressive Left assume that all such people presently feel under siege with their American-ness called into question (or at least believe that such people should feel this way based on their own reaction to the Trump presidency), while some on the Trumpian Right would perhaps rather these people not be here at all. Yet here they are, getting on with their lives, attending the Fourth of July Parade and watching the municipal firework display. Here we all are, all of us legal immigrants, happy and grateful to be in this wonderful country, and in zero need of liberal saviors from the Democratic Party or anywhere else.
Many of us would rather that Donald Trump were not president, just as many natural-born Americans would doubtless also prefer. But none of the things which attracted us immigrants to this great land died when Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office, and with diligence and appropriately deployed Constitutional checks on executive power, all of those wonderful blessings will remain when President Trump’s successor eventually takes over.
If anywhere ought logically to be riven asunder by the Trump presidency, it would be border towns like McAllen, Texas. Yet it is not so – the town continues to prosper and people remain civil toward one another, as you would expect from well-raised Texans. The lesson I have learned from the past seven weeks living here is that we are nowhere near as divided as politicians and the agenda-driven media, with their cynical motivations, would have us believe. Partisan differences may be everything to politicians, television journalists and cable news talking heads, but they do not form an impermeable wall of cultural separation among the people in this town.
Yes, there is a culture war in progress with significant social stakes for both sides. Yes, Trump’s proposed border wall is incredibly unpopular here, and Texan Senator Ted Cruz was (with some justification) made to feel quite unpopular when he stopped in town for a rare campaign visit last Fourth of July. But if it was his goal, Donald Trump has not yet succeeded in bringing about a dystopian future where brown-skinned, Latino heritage or immigrant people feel generally unwelcome or less American. The divisive efforts of the Alt-Right and the Identity Politics Left, while dominating our cultural discourse, have not succeeded in driving people apart in communities like McAllen, Texas.
And this I find to be incredibly heartening. Today I witnessed a crowd of people which appeared to be majority Hispanic or Latino happily and proudly taking part in the town’s Fourth of July parade, celebrating their country as though it were the most natural and unremarkable thing in the world – which of course it is. I waited in line at the grocery store in front of a family who had immigrated from India and were buying patriotic cakes decorated with red, white and blue frosting. And my American family didn’t kick me out when I cheekily played “God Save the Queen” and King George III’s song “You’ll Be Back” (from the musical “Hamilton”) on my iPhone at our barbecue.
Lord knows that America has its flaws – every country does, most of them far graver than the problems which exist here. But while Donald Trump’s presidency is a justifiable concern for many people, America has not suddenly become newly hostile to immigrants. This country was built by immigrants, and many first and recent-generation immigrants number among its most engaged citizens and loyal defenders.
From Washington state and California through Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri to Illinois, Ohio and New York, I have seen the soul of the country I now call home, and here in Texas I have been carefully taking America’s pulse these past weeks. And I simply do not find the unwelcoming dystopian nightmare that many on the Left insist now prevails.
And so today I give heartfelt thanks for the United States of America and celebrate her independence, even if some pessimistic, misguided people who had the great fortune to be born and grow up with the great blessing of American citizenship sadly feel unable to join me.
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