Amid a divisive immigration debate, how some newcomers to the U.S. plan to honor the country
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On July 4, 2004, a few months after Sudanese refugee Bul Dut arrived in his new home in Norfolk, Va., he attended a fireworks show. Around him, Americans oohed and aahed. Mr. Dut, however, was terrified.
The fireworks reminded him of the night in 1986 when Muslim militiamen obliterated his village. Then 5 years old, he ran into the countryside with his eight-year-old brother. Days later, Mr. Dut watched roaming militiamen shoot and kill his brother. "Watching those fireworks, seeing the sky light up, it was too hard for me," he says. "I had to leave."
Now a college student, Mr. Dut plans to celebrate this year's Fourth quietly, with a few other Sudanese refugees. They'll sit in his apartment, he says, discussing their new freedoms and studying America's founding fathers.
As people such as Mr. Dut make plans for Independence Day, the nation is roiled in a bitter debate over immigration policies. Beyond the economic and legal questions, the dispute over immigration is also an attempt to define what it means to be an American today -- issues that come to the fore on the one day of the year set aside to celebrate our common "American-ness." On Tuesday, some immigrants will blanket their neighborhoods with American flags or march in parades wearing U.S. military uniforms. Others may struggle to get enthused, given the "seal the borders" proposals floated by some politicians. And some will celebrate in a way that spotlights their ethnic identity. In Philadelphia, the nation's birthplace, Hispanic singers plan to perform the U.S. national anthem, in Spanish, to call attention to a cheesesteak restaurant that has demanded that patrons place orders in English.
Unlike native-born Americans, the nation's 34 million immigrants (legal and illegal) often feel a need to prove their allegiances. Many have affections for the country that swell each July, but they don't always know how to reconcile that with their ethnic identities. When they seek to highlight their native cultures in July Fourth parades, they sometimes upset purists who think the holiday should be about America only. In Elgin, Ill., a multicultural celebration will include Chinese dragon dancers.
Next week, Hispanic, Asian and Islamic groups are planning a range of events to demonstrate their patriotism. The 80-20 Initiative, an Asian-American activist group, is emailing more than 700,000 other Asian-Americans, encouraging them to fly U.S. flags outside their homes and businesses. The group hopes "a sea of flags" in Asian neighborhoods will erase Asians' image as "perpetual foreigners." The Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., will remain open July Fourth, so visitors can see its exhibit on Arab-American soldiers dating back to the Revolutionary War. At a time when the country is sharply divided over the war in Iraq -- a war in which many immigrants are fighting -- Latino Movement USA will ask immigrants who are military veterans to attend rallies and bring photos of themselves in uniform.
Other events will have a harder edge. In Los Angeles, the National Immigrant Solidarity Network each year supports an "activist carnival," dubbed the "Farce of July," featuring pro-immigration networking and speeches. CodePink, a women's peace and social-justice group, has invited immigrant-activist groups to join its "Troops Home Fast" hunger strike on July Fourth and report on the immigrant-rights fight at rallies nationwide. The nonprofit activist group MATT.org (Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together) wants July Fourth house parties to collect names for petitions to change Election Day from a Tuesday to a weekend or holiday, to make it easier for workers to vote.
Meanwhile, historic sites such as Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home, will host ceremonies for some of the 537,000 or so immigrants who each year take the oath of citizenship.
Groups that believe immigration must be contained are also gearing up activities for next week. The California Coalition for Immigration Reform has moved its July Fourth rally to July 5th, to coincide with congressional hearings on immigration policy, scheduled to be held that day in San Diego. Likewise, the Federation for American Immigration Reform is urging its members to head to San Diego for the hearings.
Some of the rallying cries are blunt. Illegal immigrants should celebrate the Fourth "by going home," says Jared Taylor, editor of "American Renaissance," a publication that argues against easing immigration laws. He also wants people who become U.S. citizens to "put the United States first." When new citizens' home countries play the U.S. in soccer, he asks, "Whom do they root for? They take an oath when they become citizens, and forswear allegiance to any foreign nationality." He suspects that for countless immigrants, "their first act as a U.S. citizen is to commit perjury."
The Fourth of July has evolved along with the country. On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote that Independence Day "ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade." For years, the nation's birthday was a staid affair in which people, many with ancestors who arrived in the Mayflower era, gathered to applaud the achievements of white men in wigs. The way the Fourth is celebrated today reflects the contradictions and tensions of America's mixed culture. Next week, in Laredo, Texas, Mexican-Americans will honor the Fourth with hot dogs and salsa.
Given the nuances in the larger immigration debate, we sought to find a measure of context, and some human faces, by looking at the holiday plans of immigrants and their families in three cities.
HOME TO THE WORLD'S largest naval base, Norfolk is a city that takes its patriotism to heart. Many of the area's 1.6 million residents have military ties, and fNatasha Ornelas, a native of Belarus, and Joseph Iguban, from the Philippines -- talked about what they planned to eat on July Fourth.
Mr. Dut said that his tribe in Sudan doesn't eat turkeys -- they regard them as pets -- so he wouldn't be eating that for the holiday. The others told him that turkey is actually the meal for Thanksgiving. "I don't really understand the differences between Thanksgiving and July Fourth," said Mr. Dut. "To me, there seems to be a lot of overlap."
Mr. Dut, who stands 7-foot-1, came to Norfolk after 11 years in a refugee camp in Kenya. He walked hundreds of miles to get there, and wrote an essay for his Tidewater class about the bad weeks in camp, when there was no food at all, and the good weeks, when the food allotment covered one meal a day. He last saw his parents on the day his village was attacked in 1986. He assumes they died then or in the violence that followed.
He still has in his head the image of his brother being killed. "He was just a kid, running. And I was just a kid, following him. I don't know why I wasn't shot."
Mr. Dut was first slated to come to the U.S. in mid-September 2001. He was all packed, waiting at a missionary's holding center near the Nairobi airport, when terrorists attacked America. Given the turmoil in the U.S., and the immigration issues that followed, Mr. Dut was returned to the refugee camp for two more years. Annual refugee arrivals fell more than 60 percent in the two years after 9/11, to an average of 27,570 for 2002 and 2003, according to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics. In 2005, the U.S. admitted 53,813 people as refugees.
Mr. Iguban, 28, came to America from the Philippines in 1993 at age 15, and became a citizen in 2004. He settled in Norfolk after serving in the Navy. He doesn't support efforts to forgive illegal immigration. It took 10 years before Mr. Iguban's family could enter the country through legal channels. "My family waited a long time," he says. "It's not fair for someone to just cross the border and have the same opportunities."
Ms. Ornelas, 26, worked as a pop singer in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, playing small clubs and concert halls. She met her husband, an American naval officer, while performing in the Persian Gulf country of Bahrain. He later brought her to Norfolk. Her husband, who served in Iraq earlier in the war, was recently redeployed. So Ms. Ornelas is now in America by herself.
She is learning what makes the U.S. unique. Her husband took her to Washington last year, and they went to the White House. "I saw people protesting," she says. "I thought, 'That poor president. He has to live there with all those people standing outside all the time.' We don't have a lot of protesting in my country." Now, she sees a different meaning. "It's a sign of democracy," she says.
Like Mr. Dut, Ms. Ornelas hopes to become a U.S. citizen. So she is approaching July Fourth with an eagerness to study U.S. history. "Independence came in 1777, yes?" she asks, and is pleased to learn she's close on the Declaration's signing date. On July Fourth, she says, she plans to first call her husband overseas and say "congratulations" for his country's birthday. (Given the secrecy of his mission, she was told not to discuss his whereabouts.) She then plans to attend a small party with American friends, and watch fireworks in Virginia Beach.
In their English classes, Tidewater's immigrant students write about their bumpy transitions into American life, but they also write about how grateful they are for the opportunities here, says Susan Boland, director of the program. Her students agree with President Bush that the key to success in America is mastering English, and Ms. Boland was touched when they brought in a U.S. flag and asked that it be hung in their classroom.
IN RECENT YEARS, this city southeast of San Francisco has become one of America's most culturally diverse communities: Its 210,000 residents come from dozens of ethnic groups. Thousands of immigrants from Afghanistan came after the Soviet invasion there in 1979, and thousands more are from Gujarat, India, which suffered a devastating earthquake in 2001. Fremont also has large numbers of Mexican, Japanese and Chinese.
It seemed natural then, in 2004, for city organizers to plan a July Fourth parade in which Boy Scouts would help carry dozens of American and foreign flags, representing Fremont's diversity.
Once word got out, however, some nonimmigrants were upset that a July Fourth celebration would display foreign flags. Parade organizers hadn't expected the backlash. "Our perception was, we're a place with so many different cultures, and we're all together, celebrating a uniquely American event -- but some people felt threatened and offended by that," says Lt. Col. Garrett Yee, 40, an Army reservist, who as a Boy Scout leader helped plan the flag procession.
To avoid controversy, the Scouts opted not to carry foreign flags; instead, adult marchers held them aloft. Lt. Col. Yee, whose ethnic background is half Chinese and half Japanese, asked his wife, Maria, who was born in Mexico, to carry the Mexican flag. Cheering drowned out any jeering on the parade route, they say.
"It's a flag of our culture, not our country," Ms. Yee says. "We're not willing to give up the culture." As she walked with the flag that July Fourth, she says, Mexican-Americans along the route kept saying, "Carry it higher!" They were showing pride for their origins, not disrespect for the U.S. flag, she says.
In any case, last year's parade left out the procession of foreign flags. They'll also be absent this year, but many immigrant communities will contribute floats. And Lt. Col. Yee, who heads to Iraq next month, has arranged for a U.S. Army color guard to march, also.
Lt. Col. Yee has also participated in the 80-20 Initiative's July Fourth "sea of flags" campaign, helping to decorate Asian areas of Fremont with American flags. (80-20 got its name because its founders believe that if 80 percent of Asian Americans became a voting bloc, they would be a powerful political force. The group supported John Kerry in 2004.)
Over lunch recently in Fremont, three generations of the Yee family discussed their sense of patriotism. They're the American melting-pot in microcosm, with roots in Japan, China and Mexico. Both of Lt. Col. Yee's grandmothers were born in the U.S., but lost their U.S. citizenship when they married immigrants from China and Japan in the 1920s. They were victims of federal "exclusion laws" against Asians that weren't lifted until the 1940s.
During World War II, Lt. Col. Yee's mother, Michiko Yee, now 71, was sent with her family to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. After ordering the family to leave their California home in 1942, authorities took them first to a racetrack and put them up in a horse stall for several weeks. Seven-year-old Michiko worried about a doll she left behind. The family then spent three years at a detention camp in Arizona. The government released them in 1945 and gave them $182.25 to start their new lives.
Michiko's Chinese-American husband, Gilbert, 79, spent World War II reminding people that he wasn't Japanese. "I wore a button every day that said, 'I'm Chinese.' "
In the 1980s, Michiko and other Japanese-Americans who had been interned received government reparations of $20,000. That couldn't compensate for the upheaval in their lives, she says, "but to harbor bad feelings, what's the purpose? Things were the way they were."
She believes Americans have learned a lot since then. After Sept. 11, 2001, she points out, Arab-Americans weren't rounded up and put into camps. "Our country has matured," she says.
Lt. Col. Yee's in-laws, Miguel and Guadalupe Vera, came here legally from Mexico in 1967. Guadalupe tells of the day in the mid-1980s when she applied to be a U.S. citizen. She passed the oral test, but struggled with the English on the written exam. "I got so nervous," she says. The Immigration and Naturalization Service test administrator suggested that she take a break outside for a few minutes, clear her head, and then return and try to pass. Guadalupe went outside feeling overwhelmed -- and didn't return for 15 years. She finally became a U.S. citizen in 2001.
Lt. Col. Yee expects that this will be a very emotional Independence Day for him, because by the end of July he'll be headed for Iraq. Friends have asked him if he's upset about being sent to war. "On the right shoulder of my uniform, there's an American-flag patch," he says. "I'm reminded every day that I'm serving to protect that flag. I'm proud to do it."
THIS MEXICAN-BORDER TOWN of 177,000 forms one of the epicenters of America's immigration debate. In May, pro-immigration protesters blocked a border bridge from Mexico into the city. And just this month, President Bush toured a Border Patrol headquarters here.
Juan Manuel Senties, 46, knows the immigration issues firsthand. He came to the U.S. from Mexico, legally, at age 18. He's now a U.S. citizen running a business in Laredo that rents construction equipment and large party tents. He estimates that 75 percent of the construction labor force in town is made up of Mexicans who cross the border each day to work, or those already here illegally. If U.S. authorities conducted raids, he says, "they'd shut down the construction industry here."
Mr. Senties has hired illegal immigrants, he says. "They are the hardest workers -- honest, polite. They'll set up a tent in 100-plus degrees and not complain. They want you to hire them again. We have a hard time finding U.S. citizens willing do this work."
Mr. Senties never voted for George W. Bush -- for governor of Texas or for president -- and yet, a part of him agrees with relatives in town who are active Republicans, and who believe that the U.S. border must be protected. Many in Laredo share his conflicting emotions, he says.
Each July Fourth, Mr. Senties likes to bring his wife and 8-year-old daughter to the backyard party hosted by his American-born cousins, Joe and Josie Guerra. The Guerras began their annual party in the early 1970s, to help instill in their eight children a love for America. "Now we want our 11 grandchildren to know how blessed we are to live in this country," says Ms. Guerra, 68.
Every year, the backyard is decorated in red, white and blue. The food is hot dogs and hamburgers, with Mexican dips and salsas. In the early evening, 40 or 50 invited friends and relatives gather around the flagpole and recite the Pledge of Allegiance as the flag is raised.
As an immigrant, Mr. Senties finds the ceremony very moving. Since he didn't attend grade school in the U.S., he never learned the pledge. But he's proud that his American-born daughter knows it well, and that she loves dressing up in red, white and blue for the party.
As part of the backyard ceremony, Mr. Guerra, a 71-year-old retired gasoline retailer and former Laredo councilman, leads everyone in a prayer for the nation, the president, and the military. Then he gives a short speech.
Last year, he spoke about sacrifices in the Revolutionary War. This year, he may touch on illegal immigration, and how newcomers "should go through the proper channels," says Ms. Guerra. "We can't break into a house just because we're hungry. This country is like our house. It's not that we're not charitable. But if we don't obey the laws, it will be chaos."
The July Fourth ceremony winds down with guests receiving lyric sheets to songs such as "God Bless America" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee." Ms. Guerra encourages the bashful: "I tell them, 'It's not your voice that matters, it's what you're singing about.' "
The Guerras invite guests, one by one, to articulate what America means to them. After that, all the grandchildren gather together and collect a bounty of candy falling from a hanging pinata.
First Published June 30, 2006 12:00 am