The Ellis Island Honors Society (EIHS), the 35-year old non-profit and sponsor of the Ellis Island Medals of Honor, has released an op-ed by chairman Nasser J. Kazeminy on the subject of Independence Day and its relation to immigrants. As a philanthropist and immigrant, he is a unique position to speak on this matter.
The Fourth of July is one of our great nation’s favorite national holidays, even though it has become more of a day of recreation, rather than one of commemoration. Independence Day celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, unifying the colonies and freeing the colonists from the rule of King George III. While ending tyrannical foreign rule was obviously important, I believe uniting the colonies was the more significant outcome. Declaring themselves as thirteen independent, sovereign states, these early leaders collectively took the first steps towards the establishment of the United States, and a national identity was born.
Even before 1776, immigrants were arriving on American shores. The New World was already seen as a land welcoming to foreigners and where, for those with an entrepreneurial spirit, fortunes could be made. I myself immigrated from the United Kingdom in 1969, arriving in Minnesota with little in my pockets but a head full of ambition and a heart full of gratitude. Today, I am chairman of the Ellis Island Honors Society (EIHS), the sponsor of the Ellis Island Medals of Honor which are presented annually on Ellis Island. The medal recognizes the contributions immigrants and their descendants have made to our nation. Many of our honorees are not only extremely successful, but are also proud, naturalized Americans. By taking full advantage of the opportunities America offered, they have found success in this country, while also helping America become even more competitive in the global marketplace.
One of the hashtags EIHS uses in social media is #ImmigrantsWorkforAmerica, and I believe this with all my heart. You only have to look at the world of business to see the incredible effect immigrants are having on the American economy. Industry leaders like MasterCard’s CEO Ajay Banga, the Coca-Cola Company’s former chairman and CEO, Muhtar Kent, and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, have all led their companies to great success. When they received their Ellis Island Medal of Honor, each one of them praised America for its diversity and expressed their appreciation for being welcomed into a nation that celebrated immigrants.
That is what I see as the true meaning of Independence Day, unity. Whether you were born in the United States or immigrated here and gained citizenship, you are an American with the same rights and responsibilities as all Americans. In that regard, nothing has changed in the last 250 years. In 1776, our forefathers demanded the right to self-rule in the name of freedom and the pursuit of happiness; they knew they needed a strong, unified nation to make that vision a reality.
Today both sides of the political spectrum have strong opinions about the country’s immigration policies. Still, immigrants continue to arrive in this country daily, with over 750,000 becoming citizens each year. We must dissuade our countrymen from thinking that patriotism is only felt by those born within American borders. Our forefathers knew that individually they were at the mercy of their oppressors, but as a body politic, they were invincible. We must embrace that important lesson today. This Independence Day, don’t just celebrate America, celebrate all Americans.