“I am a proud son of hardworking parents; of Lebanon, Missouri; and of America. I’ve learned how to become the man I strive to be every day from each of these identities. My family taught me to always do my earnest best and give respect in order to get it. My loving community in Lebanon taught me compassion, curiosity, and the ethos to do good in the world. My country has taught me that we as a people are not defined by an outside set of concrete qualities, but rather by the innumerable amount of small decisions we make every day.
I write today for two purposes: first, to thank my family, my town, and my country for preparing me for the lessons of life that I wrestle with now and will continue to encounter. Second, I write in response to the harmful public discourse I’ve seen as of late.
In addressing the latter, it would be far more comfortable for me to sit quietly while this insulting language occurs. I could wait for someone else to speak against it, but I cannot. This is undeniably a moment for me to put the life lessons that my town, my family, and my country have taught me into practice.
I’ve seen it posited recently: why do Muslims want to move to America? This question made me wonder, more broadly, why anyone would want to move to America? Why do people from Latin America seek American citizenship? Why do high-achieving students and professionals from around the world come here? Why did any of our ancestors take the risk to come to this experiment of a country? The answer can be heard resounding through the intercom system of Lebanon Senior High School on any day of the week: because America is the greatest country in the world.
Those seeking a new home in America are pursuing the same freedoms that those of us born as American citizens get to take for granted. We have freedom to practice what religion we choose, freedom to live the lifestyles we choose, freedom to speak and write freely without fear of persecution—it’s all in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments of our great Constitution.
Overwhelmingly, the people who come to our country do not wish harm to it; they love America and see it as a place of solace, away from home countries which have not afforded them the basic rights that the Constitution strives to protect. These are not dangerous people. In fact, based on the findings of the last three U.S. Censuses and from the National Bureau of Economic Research, immigrant populations have a lower rate of incarceration than native-born citizens. The gap has even been widening. Based on the most recent census, immigrants are incarcerated at one-fifth the rate of native-born citizens.
We should note that these freedoms are not provided without cost. Great men and women have sacrificed their lives to protect these rights—soldiers of all faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds. These freedoms are guaranteed not only by the might of our military, but also by the quality of our citizenry. America has developed its reputation as a bastion of innovation and opportunity through the hard work of those who are willing to take chances—risks like starting a new business, challenging the status quo, or uprooting from one’s home to seek a better life. Alexander Hamilton was born a bastard on the island of Nevis, grew up in extreme poverty, and immigrated to this country to eventually become our first Secretary of Treasury. Albert Einstein, the mind that defined a century, was born in Germany and sought refuge in America as the Holocaust enveloped his home and his people.
Today, millions of Muslims hope to make the same trek that our founding fathers and greatest pillars of society made for many of the same reasons. My barber, a small businessman, is an Iranian immigrant who came to America in search of a stable home for his family. I have friends from Pakistan and India who came here so they could learn at the best schools in the world. Still, hundreds of thousands more come here in desperate search for something more basic than the ability to start a business or earn an education. They long simply for safety. They come to America to live a life free of attack and terror. According to the National Terrorism Center, more than 90 percent of all victims of religiously-inspired terror attacks are Muslim. The greatest example of this truth is that of the Syrian refugee crisis. In the worst mass displacement since WWII, more than 60 million Syrian men, women, and children (mostly Muslim) have been bombed, raided, and gunned out of their homes by a hostile government. America cannot sit idly by, as it did in the waxing years of the Holocaust, and still retain its title as a moral authority on the world stage.
None of this is to say that we should not take caution when opening our doors to new citizens. Proper vetting and legal procedure are important aspects of immigration that have been and should be respected. Moreover, these procedures work. A State Department spokesman speaking to The Washington Post stated that since 9/11, only about a dozen of the nearly 785,000 refugees admitted through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program have been arrested on charges of terrorism concerns– this comes to a minuscule 0.000015% of all admitted refugees. None of them were Syrian. To shut out an entire group of people, or to impose impossibly difficult restrictions, defies our ideals and erases our history, not to mention flouts the statistical reality that immigrants are hardly the greatest threat to our national security. Instead, I would point to the internal divisions we suffer as being a more imminent danger. In a time where “negotiation” and “compromise” have become four-letter words, we’ve made ourselves vulnerable by exchanging debates for duels. Discourse should not end at the disagreement and seeking understanding does not confer approval.
Those who want to make this great nation their home come not only to enjoy the liberties we hold dear, but also to join us as citizens as we continue building an America we can be proud of: a welcoming home for the hard worker, a shining city on a hill for the lost, and a safe haven for the oppressed. These are not principles that can be claimed as Republican or Democrat. These are the truths that have shaped who we are as Americans. You and I get the choice every day to continue defining America; make it an America you’re proud of.” – Nick Raef