Seven years ago my husband was just one of the millions of immigrants who came to America legally. He was happy as a permanent resident alien, until the birth of our children. Then he realized he really had to belong to our country. So he started down the path to citizenship. On his journey to officially become an American citizen and to get to know his new country, we set out on a road trip across America to attend naturalization ceremonies in all 50 states to meet brand-new citizens to find out why they chose America.
We expected to see the cultural melting pot in the big cities, but we didn’t expect to see it in Tupelo, Mississippi or Butte, Montana! In every state, we found a diverse collection of new Americans from over a hundred different countries. As we made our way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, we discovered that more and more immigrants are migrating to the suburbs. This confirms the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data that shows immigrant populations rose more than sixty percent in areas of the country where they made up less than five percent of the population ten years ago.
America welcomes them all – the disabled, the cancer patients, homosexuals, Obama-haters, Christian missionaries, Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis, Buddhist monks, scientists with PhDs (trying to find the cure for all the diseases that are killing us), 7-11 cashiers, tech giants in Silicon Valley, Wal-Mart greeters, astronauts at NASA, movie directors, nuclear scientists at Los Alamos, aspiring politicians, race car drivers, air guitarists, and even a wrestler with his own action figure!
The one thing that every new citizen agrees on is that those who were born in the U.S.A. don’t realize how good we have it! Our new fellow-countrymen appreciate the freedoms here way more than people who have been here for generations – and can help us see all that we take for granted – indoor plumbing, electricity, uncensored internet access, religious tolerance, democracy, free refills, home ownership, funding for the arts, traffic laws, the option to go into debt, the freedom to have premarital sex, the right to bear arms, select your spouse, wear nail polish, read books, smoke, exercise as much as we like and have as many children as we want! We can learn a lot from those who became American by choice.
Whether they came here through on-line dating, adoption, political asylum, student and work visas, or by swimming the Rio Grande River (and overstayed long enough to be granted amnesty) they all came here to live the American Dream. Even though they have made themselves at home in their new country, our newest citizens still look at America with an outsider’s perspective; they hold up a mirror to show us how we look as a nation.
By looking at America through the eyes of our newest citizens, we can see how much we take for granted.
At a time when it appears that this country is beset with problems: unemployment is at an all time high, America’s manufacturing base is eroding, the federal deficit is exploding, the poverty rate is at 17 percent, U.S. students test scores rank below average in math and science literacy compared to other developed countries - immigrants from every other country on earth still flock here because no matter how bad it gets here, it’s still a heck of a lot better than most other places on earth.
In the seven films and two books I have written on the road across America, the one thing that I am still impressed by is how willing people are to welcome you into their home and let you become a part of their lives. We are grateful to all the new Americans for sharing their stories, and for making this country a more interesting place to live! The best thing about this nation is that we welcome everyone. That diversity makes us great and if we want to continue to be the greatest country on earth, we have to make sure the welcome mat continues to be out.