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July 4: A time to celebrate our roots

By Kathy Ko Chin
MCT FORUM

For me, July 4 is special because it celebrates what Lady Liberty symbolizes – our shared immigrant roots.

Immigrants come to the United States from different places and for various reasons. Some come to leave behind a life of poverty. Others come to escape war and oppression.

But they all come with one common goal in mind: to make a better life for themselves and their families. And immigrants continue to contribute to the vitality and economic engine of this country.

My dad, who came to the United States from China with just $24 in his pocket, achieved the American Dream. Two years after arriving in the United States, he earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Five years after that, he earned his Ph.D.

In 55 years of teaching, he’s trained 180 graduate students, some of whom have gone on to start Silicon Valley companies. What he’s contributed to this nation, in the form of intellectual capital, is much more than what he’s received in financial benefits.

The same holds true for the Chinese immigrants who came here in the late 1800s. They toiled for long hours for cheap wages on farms, in mines and along the railroad tracks.

Rampant xenophobia led to passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and Chinese immigrants were detained and interrogated at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. Immigrants were left to languish at Angel Island for weeks, months, sometimes even years. But they were never deterred because they knew America promised the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Comprehensive immigration reform

Today, it’s shocking that some immigrants to this country still have to endure an immigrant experience similar to that of those Chinese immigrants who were held at Angel Island.

We can’t abide that in the year 2013. That’s why we need immigration reform. But it must be comprehensive, and it must give everyone an equal chance.

I wonder if my dad would have made it through the new point system that is now being proposed in the immigration reform bill before Congress. This system would give preference to immigrants with the best skills, employment history and educational credentials.

While that might sound reasonable, it doesn’t give everyone a fair chance, including those, like my father, who came here with nothing. In addition, it would disfavor women, people who volunteer, those with no formal education, elderly adults and “applicants from less-developed countries,” according to the Immigration Policy Center.

Our congressional leaders hold in their hands the dreams of millions of immigrants – those with higher education and those without, skilled and low-wage workers – who are looking to fulfill their life’s ambitions.

Let us not trample on their dreams.

Let us lift up our lamps, as Lady Liberty does, to shine the pathway to citizenship so that by next July 4, many new Americans will line the parade route, celebrating what is great about our country.

Kathy Ko Chin is president and CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, a national social justice organization that works to improve the health of Asian-Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and other underserved populations. Write to her at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703; email: pmprojprogressive.org.
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