Of Note: HIAS' Contributions to America, Reflections for the Fourth of July

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Mon, Jul 07, 2008 at 12:42 pm

As we approach the Fourth of July and our country’s 232nd birthday, I reflect on President George Washington’s comment that “the bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges…” I also think of President John F. Kennedy’s statement that, “Immigration is by definition a gesture of faith in social mobility. It is the expression in action of a positive belief in a better life. It has thus contributed greatly to developing the spirit of personal betterment in American society and to strengthening national confidence in change and the future.”

HIAS has long been inspired by the sentiments embodied in these noble statements by America’s great leaders as they contemplated the role of immigration in our nation’s history and culture, and in defining our very consciousness as Americans. This Independence Day, we celebrate three areas where HIAS is making crucial contributions to America and our immigrant future.

Despite the recent defeat of Comprehensive Immigration Reform in the Senate, an event that could have been cause for discouragement and disengagement, we have continued our intense efforts of the past few years, redoubling our work to fix our broken immigration system by expanding outreach to Jewish and interfaith grassroots communities nationwide.

Indeed, as Americans committed to the vitality, security, and humanity of our country, we consider it an enterprise of fundamental patriotism to ensure that the United States continues to reap the rewards offered by the countless workers, entrepreneurs, artists, community leaders, military fighters, and so many others who have yet to immigrate, or who are living in the shadows unable to fulfill their, and our, American Dream. Massive waves of immigrant Jews have thrived in America and made tremendous contributions to this country; as the Jewish community’s activist arm on migration, HIAS is committed to remain at the forefront of the fight for immigration reform.

Next, in celebration of the United States as the “Land of Liberty,” I would like to tell the story of a doctor, originally of Nepal and now of New York, who worked tirelessly to promote children’s health in Nepal through a program funded by USAID. Maoist guerillas and insurgents – more concerned with the political implications of USAID funding than with the elimination of birth defects and infant mortality among people who would otherwise have no medical assistance – persecuted him for his efforts. Thanks to our HIAS-Prins Asylum Program, HIAS was able to represent this courageous doctor and succeed in winning his asylum case.

Reflecting both the United States’ tradition of offering refuge to the persecuted, and HIAS’ longstanding role as a champion of refugees and asylum seekers, at home and abroad, the doctor wrote, “Today, I proudly stand with the profound hope that one day many people’s lives will flourish greatly because of the most sincerest [sic] effort you have shown towards me….I also wish continued success to you and HIAS in touching people’s lives in such a way that they are able to live life in freedom and harmony…”

Finally, we have expanded programming in the outreach, Jewish identity, and educational arenas. Our work utilizing advanced technology to assist individuals in learning about their own family and communal migration history; the MyStory web project where participants in the Soviet Jewish migration tell their own stories; the HIAS Young Leaders programs in NY, DC, LA, Chicago, and nationwide; and the soon-to-be-launched Sidney Krum On-Line Gallery of Jewish Immigrant Art are all part of this new focus for HIAS. These activities not only impact individuals or the Jewish community but rather, by enhancing the rich cultural tapestry of this nation, signify a profound contribution to the United States as a whole.

One of the best summations of how immigration unites the personal and the patriotic comes from Sanford Ungar, president of Goucher College and a HIAS supporter, in his excellent book Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants. After telling a moving story of traveling to his father’s home village in Czechoslovakia, Ungar writes, “But something very important had changed for me. I knew now really, where my father was from. I had stood where once he had played, and I had a feel for the village from which he had set out, three-quarters of a century earlier, on his own bold journey to America…I was no less American than ever before, of course, but now, in middle age, I had discovered my own immigrant consciousness. Indeed, in that sense, I could now feel even more authentically American.”

And so, I wish all of you a happy Fourth of July.

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