This is an immigrants love song to his adopted country! Will we immigrants play a critical role in renewing American democracy? We must because every generation of immigrants to the United States has done so. Except this time the call is more urgent because the tenets of our social compact are under attack.
On the day I flew into New York to avoid imprisonment in my home country of South Africa, I was afraid the plane would flip over. It seemed everyone was trying to stand up to get a glimpse of Lady Liberty. People beamed and clapped and I felt goosebumps looking down on her and her torch of welcome.
We immigrants cherish the freedom, pluralism, separation of powers, journalistic independence, free markets and diversity of our adopted homeland. We've made a choice to flee or leave countries where those things are not cherished or enshrined in the fabric of society. We have chosen to become fellow citizens but we should not take what we treasure here for granted.
Here is why I write this love song:
Immigration! The magnificence of the United States comes from the waves of immigrants who have shaped, formed and enriched this country. Each group has brought unique gifts to our culture, cuisine, ingenuity, the arts and more. Countless studies reveal that the net economic impact of immigrants is a positive contributor to the economy. Immigrants commit significantly fewer crimes than native-born citizens. Yet one candidate oozes disdain for immigrants and effectively denounces the American story of what has made us great - immigrants.
Voting! The right to vote freely and without intimidation is as American as apple pie - or so it should be. Since becoming a naturalized citizen in 1995 I have only missed voting in two elections. Perhaps because of where so many of us immigrated from voting is a sacred privilege. This election cycle sees renewed attempts to intentionally limit voting by American citizens. One candidate even threatens the possibility of voter intimidation at the polls. Surely we want to expand democratic participation?
Free and Fair Elections. Unlike the countries many immigrants come from, where elections are fraudulent and manipulated, multiple studies reveal that voter fraud in the US is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. We trust the integrity of the process and honor the peaceful transfer of power even when the Supreme Court decided the 2000 election. One candidate preys on his supporters to undermine the fairness of our elections and potentially subvert the peaceful transfer of power with veiled threats of violence. This is what tin pot dictators do. America's beacon of democracy is surely not assailable?
Free Exercise of Religion. The founding promise of the American experiment was the free exercise of religion. Many of us immigrants come from places where religion is a weapon. I've been privileged to build interfaith relationships and coalitions with Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindi's, Christians and many others. One candidate for President foments suspicion and hatred about one religion with words of violent disdain. Which religion might be next in attacking a fundamental tenet of our society?
Armed Forces. The armed forces have been one of the great unifiers and melting pots of a diverse America. We honor service women and men with our words, gratitude and celebration of their service. I've worked with vets in the early years of the AIDS crisis when the VA offered scant services and I've worked with some of the far too many vets living on the streets or shelters of our country. One candidate mocks the family of a Gold Star veteran because of their faith. Surely our Commander in Chief must aspire to be the commander of all service men and women regardless of their religion?
Freedom of Expression. Freedom of expression - and especially that of the media - is a hallmark of American democracy. When Jewish journalists are harassed and threatened on social media by supporters of one candidate and when the same thing happens to a prominent gay journalist it is deeply disturbing. But when the candidate himself mocks a disabled reporter and suggests reporters might get beaten up by his supporters, it is reminiscent of the countries many of us fled. To trifle with freedom of expression is to subvert America itself.
My immigrant love song to my adopted is not about party affiliation. It is about the soul, dream and promise of the United States. Religious converts are often zealous people and I think it is fair to say that many of us immigrants are zealous about this country out of our love and gratitude for it.
I've had the good fortune to live in big and small cities as well as a rural area of this country. I've led community development corporations, congregations, a prominent institution and served on prestigious and unknown boards. I've ministered to people on the streets, in blue collar communuties and among the rich and powerful. Like most of you, I am a keen listener and observer of the America I cherish.
When we do not live up to the democratic ideals we proclaim to the world it is noticed. If we deny or impinge on the exercise of free speech, religion and voting and if we start immigrant deportation forces and use military service for partisan political gains every autocrat and dictator takes courage and comfort. Those possibilities diminish all of us.
Each wave of immigrants has contributed to making our Union more perfect and holding our feet to the fire about the ideals that make the United States of America a beacon of hope.
For the soul and renewal of America, we immigrants need to vote. And if you remember your own immigrant roots join us in renewing the very things that make us unique.
Let's sing a love song to our country by showing up to vote and renew American democracy.
Robert V. Taylor is President of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation in New York City. He is an openly gay leader and the author of "A New Way to Be Human" (New Page Books). He lives in Washington State.
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