On St. Patrick’s Day, we celebrate our Irish heritage and our good fortune to be Americans. The success of America is the result of the work of people from every part of the world–of different backgrounds, religions and languages, coming together, committed not to a race or a religion but to an ideal. This is an ideal best expressed by our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, whose goal was “to form a more perfect union.”
Yet hostility to those who are different is as old as civilization. Fear and anxiety in times of transition are not new. The United States initially welcomed immigrants to help fill a vast continent. The first restriction was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a reaction to the entry of Chinese workers who helped build the transcontinental railroad.
In 1906 an earthquake and fire devastated San Francisco. Unable to accommodate all the children whose schools were destroyed, the city prohibited children of Japanese ancestry from attending public schools, requiring them to enter a separate, segregated school for children of Chinese and Korean ancestry.
Later, successive waves of Italians and Irish, Jews and Catholics, and many others were met with hostility. Every Irish-American is aware of the signs that appeared across U.S. cities: “Irish need not apply.” Every Italian-American remembers how all were stigmatized because of the few who were Mafia criminals. And, other than African-Americans, no group has suffered from discrimination more or longer than Jews.
From the very beginning, America has been enriched by new people, new ideas, new energy, new vision.
And yet tremendous contributions have been made to and for our country by each group. The earliest of them withstood the hostility; they got their hands on the bottom rung of the ladder of success and pulled themselves up. Their children and grandchildren stood on their shoulders and climbed even higher, in some cases to the pinnacles of success.
Every rational American knows that we cannot return to open immigration. There must be realistic limits on how many can enter and who they are. But we should not limit the discussion to who we want to keep out or who we should throw out. We also must focus on who we want to enter, and how we can continue to replenish our society with new people, to their benefit and ours.
From the very beginning, America has been enriched by new people, new ideas, new energy, new vision. That continues today. Six of the seven American recipients of last year’s Nobel Prizes were immigrants.
Three of the most valuable and successful business enterprises in the world are Apple, Amazon and Google. Apple was created by Steve Jobs, whose father was born in Syria. Amazon was created by Jeff Bezos, whose adoptive father was born in Cuba. And a co-founder of Google was Sergey Brin, who was born in Russia.
Genius knows no language, no race, no religion. It can be found wherever human beings exist. But it is more likely to flourish where there is freedom, education and opportunity for all, where innovation is encouraged and success is celebrated. America is such a place. Despite all the negative talk about our decline, nine of the 10 most valuable business brands in the world are American, as are 15 of the world’s top 20 universities. Ninety-one percent of online searches are done through American companies, and 99 percent of smartphones are on American-made operating systems.
That the strength of America lies ultimately in our ideals is a major contributor to our success. Military power and economic strength are important, even necessary. But in the United States they have been infused with the ideals that are the basis and the promise of American life.
They are not easily summarized, but surely they include the sovereignty of the people; individual liberty, our highest value; opportunity for all; an independent judiciary; and the rule of law applied equally to all and, crucially, to the government itself. Our Constitution is more than a compilation of laws and procedures. It also is a statement of ideals and a symbol of American values, especially the principles of equal justice and equal rights for all.
Americans have much to be concerned about, but much more to be thankful for. We now need the wisdom and the strength to extend education, opportunity and hope to more and more people, in our country and around the world. That is our challenge. We must make it our destiny.