Independence Day has become a sacred holiday for me! I arrived on these shores as an exile and became a so-called “illegal alien.” Thanks to legal aid services I ultimately became a proud citizen. I celebrate the life and liberty I have been blessed with in the United States. I treasure the happiness I have been allowed to pursue. Why do you celebrate this holiday?
Perhaps you grew up taking the July Fourth holiday for granted. Unless your ancestors arrived as a slave someone in your lineage came to America wanting to claim the promise of these words - that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That bold declaration which forged a new nation remains secure to the degree we treasure and protect those words.
I anticipate this holiday every year much as a child waits for Christmas to arrive. In the South Africa I fled in 1980 people were viewed as decidedly unequal and without inalienable rights. Life was treated in a cavalier way. Limited liberty was doled out to some, while happiness was a useful tool in the government’s arsenal of repression and terror.
Recently I reflected on the remarkable life I’ve enjoyed for the thirty-seven years I have lived in the United States. My husband and I were preparing to host a fundraising event for an organization that funds legal aid services for people who would otherwise not have access to our justice system.
Legal aid for those who cannot afford it in a nation based on laws. For a family left homeless by a shady landlord, a parent desperate to flee an abusive relationship with her children, or get out of being sex trafficked, an elderly person whose savings have been stolen by a scam artist, a wounded veteran denied health care benefits, or an immigrant claiming their right to remain in this country.
I pondered what to say to our guests and potential donors. Then it dawned on me – I was once the beneficiary of legal aid as an undocumented person living and working in this country!
For decades I have enjoyed a successful and public career and my husband I are grateful for all that we have been afforded and worked for. It would be easy for many of our guests to make assumptions about us. Looking out from our living room beyond the twelve foot high floor-to-ceiling windows at the gorgeous valley and mountains might easily speak only of privilege.
Would I tell a story I had never publicly shared? About a staff member of the United States diplomatic service in Cape Town smoothing my exit from South Africa in 1980 and his assurance that my student visa would easily be translated into a residency and work visa. How my world was turned upside down in my fifth year of living and working in this country.
I had completed seminary and ordination. I was working as the interim executive of a community development agency in New York’s Westchester County when the letter arrived from the then Immigration Service.
My application to live and work in the United States had been denied. I had thirty days to leave the country or be deported to my home country. Surely this was a really bad joke? As I read and re-read the dreaded letter it sank in. This was for real. I was being booted out of my new country.
I imagined a black car appearing in the middle of the night to take me to the plane that would send me home to jail. My own fear made me feel terrified and helpless.
I needed to do something. So I cancelled my summer vacation to visit Seattle then drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. What I really needed to do was stop that imagined black car arriving in my driveway.
I spoke to my bishop who arranged for me to meet with a prominent immigration attorney. He generously agreed to take my case on a pro bono basis. I was suddenly a legal aid client.
I’ll never forget our first meeting. He was more therapist than attorney trying to calm my anxieties and fears. He said, “This is not South Africa; no car will come for you in the dark of night. If we need to we’ll tie them up in court for years – this is America!” I desperately wanted to believe him.
My legal aid lawyer concluded our meeting by saying something quite striking in light of my mixed heritage of being part Russian, Palestinian, English and Scottish. “Be grateful that you appear to be white because no one will pick you up for questioning. If your skin was darker you’d have reason to fear.”
As he ushered me out he offered me a benediction – “Now go about your life.” I left his Manhattan office building and stepped onto the teeming streets of a richly diverse city acutely aware that my apparent whiteness offered me a privileged status in this nation of immigrants.
Fourteen months later my brilliant legal aid attorney secured permission to have my immigration interview scheduled at the United States Consulate in Montreal rather than returning to my home country where jail would await.
As I re-entered America and proudly presented my new green card I could feel the goosebumps cover my body. I was bursting with gratitude for my attorney and all who had helped me. I quietly said to myself, “Never forget any of this Robert; for you are just one of many.” And then the tears of truth and reckoning began to flow.
Years later I became a citizen of my adopted country. Leaving the courthouse I clutched the copy of the Constitution and the American flag that had been presented to me by the Daughters of the American Revolution. I felt as I still do - and as most immigrants feel - that much was entrusted to me in that moment.
I imagined telling this story to the friends and prospective donors coming to our beautiful home for an elegant catered fundraiser to support legal aid services. I could hear myself ending the story by saying, “It’s all too easy for any of us to make assumptions about others; but this is why this legal aid recipient supports legal aid services.”
I’m glad to have told the story at the event we hosted. It generated heartfelt stories and conversation about immigrants in this land of liberty and freedom and why access to the justice system is so vital for all.
I’m proud to be an American. I know only too well that the declaration that is the bedrock of this nation - that all people are created equal, that each person is endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, chief of which are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – is to be nurtured and protected.
I’m celebrating our right to do exactly that as Americans.