Like nearly all Americans, I am the offspring of immigrants. The peasant farmers whose family name I inherited came from Ireland. They left a homeland savaged by famine, trading a grim reality of financial ruin and starvation for the promise of a new and better life. They were part of what might be described today as a massive caravan that took incalculable risk to make its way across a vast ocean seeking refuge and comfort from the Mother of Exiles.
My immigrant ancestors settled first in New Jersey before journeying to northern Illinois and eventually Wisconsin. They made this land their home and passed down a way of life from generation to generation. A big part of that way of life was a welcome mat and an unlocked door. Throughout my childhood, there was always a pot of coffee and a fresh-baked cake or pie at the ready just in case visitors came calling, be they acquaintances or strangers.
My ancestry and upbringing are why it felt so — how should I say it? — foreign to me when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services changed its mission statement in early 2018, deleting the longstanding reference to America as a “nation of immigrants” and scrubbing language describing the agency’s purpose as “providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship.” The agency’s mission now speaks antiseptically of “protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”
Undefining America as a nation of immigrants does not honor our values, it abandons them. Some will say it’s only a mission statement, it’s just words. But these words are being acted out. A country known for lifting a lamp beside a golden door is now firing tear gas over a barrier of razor wire. Our government is shut down over one man’s insistence on making that barrier even more impenetrable.
My dad fought in some of World War II’s bloodiest battles. He risked his life to defeat the Nazis, not to pave the way for his country to embrace their master race mindset. He made it out of the horrors of war alive, and vowed not to pick up a gun ever again. He never did. When awakened in the middle of the night by the sounds of a suspected intruder or other disturbance, he’d grab a baseball bat and disappear into the darkness to restore order. I marveled at his fearlessness.
When our country is at its best, America is just as fearless. When we are at our best, we don’t spend billions of dollars building monuments to paranoia. We sure don’t allow fixation on the erection of such a monument — call it a wall, call it a fence — to bring useful functions of government to a grinding halt.
When we are at our best, ours is an open-minded and big-hearted country, a compassionate nation. At our best, we have a strong sense of national purpose and an indomitable spirit. At our best, ours is a country of builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers. It’s what put a man on the moon.
Today, as we wall ourselves off, it’s hard to put a finger on a common aim Americans are united in pursuing. Preventing the ecological, economic and social calamity sure to be brought on by global climate change could and should be such an aim. America at its best would set an example for the rest of the world to follow. At our best, we would shoot for the moon, we would aim to be the first nation on Earth fully powered by renewable energy.
At our best, there’s no need to obsess over being great. When America is at its best, greatness takes care of itself.