What it Means to be an American

Updated on May 26, 2023

I had a chat with a newly minted citizen, who undoubtedly knows more about our constitution and how our government operates than many of us do.  He entered the U.S. legally, obtained a green card, and several years later he took his citizenship test. When he was asked why he wanted to become a citizen, he told them that he wanted a better life for his family.

Because he was so proud of his new status here, and obviously looking through rose-colored glasses, I was reluctant to burst his bubble.  But didn’t he know the enormity of our problems here – the mass shootings, stalemated government, increasing polarization among us, our growing hate groups, our crumbling infrastructure?

Then talk turned to those crossing Mexico’s northern border to slip into the United States.  Actually, a significant number of these migrants were crossing into Mexico’s southern border, from Central and South America.  And they weren’t traveling by air or motorized land transportation.  They were walking – walking across a continent on nothing as luxurious as a paved road.  They forged ahead through jungles and water, getting bitten by snakes, losing family members by drowning, enduring sunburn, exhaustion, dehydration and hunger.

What must they be fleeing to attempt such a trek as dangerous as this?  And whatever gave them the idea that we here are free of the violence and corruption that they were so desperate to escape?  My question provided my own answer when I recalled Winston Churchill’s words about democracy being the worst kind of government in the world except for all the rest.   So when they say they want a better life here, they are not as naïve as we might think; they want better, not perfect.  They are fleeing something far worse than we will ever know.

These migrants’ resolve, grit and determination to carve out a decent life for their families – is this not the very definition of our idealized version of what it means to be an American?  Can we begin to re-work our thinking from fearing them as those just looking for a handout to imagining how enriched we could become with those who would undoubtedly cherish our country?  Will they not have proven by their most arduous journey that they have the fortitude to work hard here to support themselves and contribute to our communities?

Nevertheless, we all get that, just like New York City is sinking under the weight of its skyscrapers, so too would we not be able to sustain the crush of unlimited masses of people from around the globe trying to reach our shores. But whether they stay or are turned away, there would be no harm in showing compassion for what they endured to come here.

People are finding this ongoing tension among our fellow Americans regarding immigrants to be exhausting and divisive.  Hopefully, we can begin to let go of our pre-judging of others and work to find common ground.  So if you should happen upon recent immigrants, try asking them their story of how they got here.  Just make sure you have a tissue handy.