For the past couple of weeks, cable television news coverage has been fixated on the latest in the Republicans’ irrational quest to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Their arguments are baseless and filled with the hyperbolic language of fear that only comes from voices on the right. These ideological zealots have tried to repeal Obamacare over 40 times, filibuster it (kind of), held the federal government hostage with a shutdown, and now are holding congressional hearings about its webpage launch. It’s almost too silly to take seriously.
On the periphery of this circus, President Obama has announced his renewed effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Second only to universal healthcare, immigration reform is perhaps the issue that will define the Obama legacy. The GOP’s ridiculous preoccupation with destroying Obamacare may actually be a good thing for comprehensive immigration reform. Keeping their focus away from immigration may give our nation a chance to discuss the issue without the typical exaggerated scaremongering from the Tea Party types.
The folks who vow to rid our country of affordable healthcare come from the same crowd that predicts the demise of American values and culture if immigration reform provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. You may remember when their 2012 presidential candidate suggested that government policy should make immigrants’ lives so difficult that they will “self-deport.” Nice try Mr. Romney. The reason his argument fell flat is because immigrants embody the very values and culture that make this country great.
Our nation’s values were born during the American Revolution and memorialized in the Declaration of Independence. From Jefferson’s assertion that all people have a right to pursue happiness to the civil liberties outlined in the Bill of Rights, American values are based on concepts of human dignity and freedom. Nowhere in those seminal documents do the Founding Fathers proclaim that proficiency in English, a hearty appetite for apple pie, or being descended from western European stock are requirements for American values.
The basis for the American value system is simple – the belief in freedom, hard work, and the opportunity to succeed without regard to one’s station in society. At best, those who believe otherwise don’t truly understand this concept of American values or may be stuck in the romantic notion that Norman Rockwell’s America defines who we are as a people. At worst, they are racist xenophobes who won’t accept anyone who doesn’t look or sound like their definition of an American.
To illustrate how they have it wrong, the life of my father-in-law, a man I greatly admire, comes to mind. Fausto Peralta was born and raised in a small town tucked in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico. He came to the United States nearly 60 years ago as a teenager. He settled in California’s central valley where he worked in the fields picking cotton and irrigating crops. He met my mother-in-law during the late 1950s, married her a year later, and moved to San Jose for a construction job and a piece of the American Dream.
A cement mason who raised four daughters in east San Jose, he worked in construction during Silicon Valley’s biggest building boom. He beamed with pride when my wife Sandra told him that she took most of her classes at San Jose State University in Sweeney Hall, the education department building he helped build during the 1960s. His daughters’ lives symbolize the power of the American Dream. All four are SJSU graduates: Sandra is an elementary school principal, one sister is an engineer, and the other two are a tireless community volunteer and SJSU human resources administrator.
My father-in-law is more comfortable speaking in Spanish than in English. He would rather have rice and beans instead of a hamburger and fries for dinner. When watching television, he is more likely to click the remote to Univision instead of CNN or CBS. Those who fear immigrants and hold the false belief that our nation’s culture is rooted in language, food, and television habits would argue that my father-in-law doesn’t represent America or our national heritage.
Oh, how they’re wrong. For over 50 years, he has worked hard, paid taxes, financed the education of four children, voted in elections from LBJ to President Obama, and gratefully struggled in his pursuit of happiness. About eight years ago, on a family vacation in Washington, D.C., I watched this proud American walk into the White House for a tour. Based on the concepts outlined by the Founding Fathers, my father-in-law exemplifies what it means to be American.
The face of America may be changing, but the soul remains the same. Some newcomers may choose mariachi over jazz, tortillas over wheat bread, and the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish over English. Nevertheless, it’s clear that they believe in the values of liberty and justice that the pledge so eloquently brings to life. They believe in the American Dream that my father-in-law embarked on over a half century ago.
To be sure, there needs to be a healthy debate about immigration. I hope it happens before the peddler’s of fear divert their attention from trying to destroy Obamacare to alarming those Americans who unrealistically worry about the downfall of American values and culture caused by immigration reform. The millions of people who, like my father-in-law, left everything behind to come to the United States already understand American values. Passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform won’t lead to the decline of America; meaningful reform will make our values and culture even stronger.