Celebrating Independence Day by Fighting Back

By Olivia Golden

Independence Day is a time to reflect on what it means to be an American. This year, after continued assaults by the Trump Administration on immigrants, children, people of color, low-income people, and workers, it’s hard to reconcile the country I love and the values I thought we shared with where we are today. I knew the United States hadn’t fully delivered on the aspirations we celebrate on the Fourth – like the promises of liberty and justice for all and welcoming the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But I never imagined America’s leaders completely denying those aspirations.

On July 4, 1999, I had the chance to see the United States as a beacon of hope for those aspirations. In 1998 and 1999, our country intervened to halt violence in the former Yugoslavia against the largely Muslim population of Kosovo. As the HHS assistant secretary for Children and Families, I oversaw the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which was helping refugees find homes, settle into their community, and get help with basic needs while learning English and finding a job. To help ORR staff who had been working tirelessly, I offered to spend the holiday weekend overseeing our Kosovo refugee operations at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Families were awaiting placement in a community after being displaced from their homes, fleeing to safety, and undergoing extensive vetting.

It turned out to be the most powerful July 4th of my life. The families I met were moved by our 4th of July rituals. Our familiar quotations about independence and opportunity spoke directly to them. After experiencing violence because of their Muslim faith, several told me how much it meant that we welcomed people of all religions. To all of us working there, the families’ hope and commitment to their new country represented America at its best.

Fast forward to today, and that vision of our nation is disappearing fast. Just last week, the Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s Muslim ban, which shut the door on refugees like those I met and shredded the promise of a country that doesn’t take sides over religion. And ORR, a small office that once stood as an emblem of hope, is now best known for housing babies and toddlers torn from their parents at the border while the number of refugees admitted this year has plummeted.

Immigrants, people of color, and Muslims have been under constant attack since the beginning of the Trump administration. In the early weeks of his administration, a leaked plan laid out a menu of threats to immigrants, including a proposal to punish immigrant families for getting health care, food assistance, or other core public services for themselves or their children. This expansion of the “public charge” rule could be published as soon as this month as a proposed regulation. Leaked drafts make clear that the regulation would threaten millions of people, including citizen children and individuals who have long contributed to the United States. The rule would force parents to make a wrenching choice between their children’s health and nutrition and their family’s long-term security here by denying them the opportunity to get green cards and become lawful permanent residents.

The drumbeat of policy threats, ramped-up enforcement, and hateful rhetoric is having real consequences, particularly for our country’s children—just over one in four of whom have at least one immigrant parent. When we threaten these children’s health and wellbeing, we threaten our future. Nonetheless, in focus groups and interviews with more than 150 immigrant parents and early childhood educators in 6 states, my colleagues at the Center for Law and Social Policy found that young children and their families live with constant fear and stress that affects their behavior and ability to learn. Children express this distress by harming themselves, withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy, and regressing on developmental milestones. And fear is keeping immigrant families isolated in their homes and increasingly vulnerable to economic instability, housing turmoil, and exploitation. Child development research confirms that these factors individually have long-term effects into adulthood – and all of them together magnify the damage.

This July 4th, it’s time to reclaim the aspirations embraced since our founding to be a welcoming nation. We must stand up for immigrants, refugees, and people of color—and fight back against continued assaults on them. We must demand that immigrant families not have to make the impossible choice between meeting basic needs and securing their legal status. We can stand up at mass protests, such as those that sprung up at airports when the Muslim ban was announced. We can submit formal comments when new damaging regulations are proposed. And we can demand that our elected officials at state, local and national levels hold the Administration accountable. We must fight back to reclaim our future and our values.