I started the process of immigrating to America 12 years ago. Two TN visas, two H1-B visas, a two-year Green Card, a ten-year Green Card, and thousands of dollars of government “processing fees” later, I was finally able to apply for citizenship via naturalization. After another year of waiting, I received a timeslot for my final naturalization interview.
Three months after that, I heard my name called: “Joshua Lawson, Canada.” I walked across the stage, shook the hand of the presiding judge, and was an American citizen at last.
It was the fulfillment of a decades-long dream and is, so far, my happiest memory apart from my wedding day. But if you listen to the corporate media or watch the majority of entertainment produced today, my decision to leave Canada to become an American makes no sense. According to America’s foes, I should have stayed in a country that leftists threaten to emigrate to whenever a Republican wins the White House.
Much of the present narrative is that America is not just an imperfect country, like all the others, but an evil place. We’re told by ahistorical efforts like The New York Times’s 1619 Project, and by the neo-Marxist Black Lives Matter movement that the United States is an irredeemably unfair and wicked nation. Sadly, many Americans are giving into this corrosive narrative. They’re wondering if the American republic is still worthy of love and devotion; they’re wondering if it’s still worth fighting for.
The most recent figures from the Department of Homeland Security show 761,901 persons from more than 200 countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe became naturalized U.S. citizens in 2018. The UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs lists the number of Americans who were first-generation immigrants at more than 50,660,000, the highest of any country on earth. According to Gallup, the United States remains the number one destination for immigrants in the world, with an incredible 158 million expressing the desire to move to America if they could.
So, to those who disparage America: Why do so many risk imprisonment attempting to live illegally in a place so rotten? Or, why do so many spend decades and thousands of dollars to try to legally join an “unfair” or “racist” country? I can’t speak to the exact individual motivations of any immigrant other than myself, by I’m confident millions of people across the globe want a better life in America because it is an exceptional nation built on an idea that has been a beacon of hope for centuries.
Yearning to Breathe Free
I didn’t have a Road to Damascus moment. There wasn’t a flash where all at once I knew I wanted to leave Canada to join the American experiment. But I do remember where I was and how I felt on September 11, 2001, a clarifying moment in my early life.
I was a junior in high school when a student named Liam burst into the classroom shouting that airplanes had just crashed into skyscrapers in New York City. A few minutes later, the principal’s voice come over the PA system and confirmed the worst. Classes were suspended. The school set up TVs so we could watch CNN International. Everyone was sent home shortly after lunch.
When my dad got in from work, my family and I watched American news until bedtime. We did the same every night for weeks. It hurt. I felt a surreal, pain deep in my stomach. Yet this wasn’t my country. The closest border was two hours away. I’d been to Florida a handful of times and Pennsylvania once when I was an infant, but I had no American family. So why did I feel this way?
This past October, while sitting in the waiting room before my final naturalization interview, I started to think about where my love of America came from, and retroactively began to piece it together.
Signposts to Freedom
My first real education about America didn’t come from my time in Ontario public schools, which were on board with the 1619 Project long before it had a name. Luckily for me, I absorbed the American story through classic movies, music, television shows, and even newer period musicals like “Ragtime.”
Official leftist dogma says these present “simplistic,” “naïve,” or overtly “whitewashed” conceptions of America. But this is where my pushback begins. It is because of their combination of idealism with an informed yet unabashed patriotism that my first notions of the United States are quintessentially American.
No country, save for Marxist totalitarian nightmares, has ever thought perfection was an attainable goal. But as a teenager, America was the only country I saw as limitless. It was the sole place where risk was rewarded and where hard work and merit counted more than one’s bloodline, heritage, or connections to the government.
The weeks after 9/11 lead me to explore and investigate America’s economic system, its politics, and its history. I devoured books by David Hackett Fischer, Milton Friedman, David McCullough, and Thomas Sowell, and the more I read, the more I knew America was where I belonged. When 9/11 happened, it felt like my country had been attacked because, although I didn’t know it then, I had already become an American — just without the official papers.
It has become reflexive, even fashionable, to dismiss the notion of “America as an idea.” For some, the concept is too abstract, sentimental, or romanticized. Others recoil at the concept, arguing it ignores the reality that America is a distinct geographic place with official borders. Of course, America is both an idea and a place. All countries define their sovereign territory, although some borders are more porous or carelessly patrolled than others. Ultimately, however, what makes America one-of-a-kind is its promise.
No other country in the world is so steeped in the idea of purpose-driven new beginnings, a concept exemplified beautifully in the Great Seal of the United States. On the obverse side, the seal features the national coat of arms with the phrase E pluribus unum (“Out of Many, One”), a reminder that U.S. citizenship doesn’t belong to a single ethnic group, race, or people, but to all who come legally and pledge their allegiance to defend one united country.
The reverse side of the Great Seal can be seen on the $1 bill. It features two phrases: Annuit cœptis and Novus ordo seclorum. The former is translated as “He [God] has favored our undertakings” or “Providence favors our undertakings.”
Both renderings speak to the hand of the same Higher Power referenced in the Declaration of Independence in overseeing the formation of the country and its endeavors. The latter phrase means “A new order of the ages,” and was intended by its designer, Charles Thomson, to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 as “the beginning of the new American Era.”
America’s icons and symbols matter, and they speak to the nation’s essential character. The pyramid of the Great Seal is intentionally unfinished. America is meant to be improving, forever striving to be a freer, more virtuous nation. As it was with the expanding boundary of the Old West and as it remains with the infinite new frontier of space, Americans shouldn’t ever be completely satisfied; not from greed or lust, but with the archetypically American belief that there is always more work to be done, improvements to be made, and wrongs to make right.
As Aristotle puts it, a virtuous human is necessarily a “being-at-work.” We’re not made to work so we can play; we’re to rest just long enough to recharge our batteries. The goal is to get right back to fulfilling our purpose here on earth: using our abilities and gifts with zeal and excellence to glorify the Creator who gave us our talents. That’s what it means to be truly alive, and it’s a great deal about what it means to be an American.
America, The Beautiful
What remains most inspiring about America is that ours is the first government in history founded on the idea that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. It’s a nation that empowers individuals, not the state. We The People tell the government what it can do, not the other way around.
Many Americans may forget how blessed they are to live in a country that has the U.S. Constitution’s First, Second, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The rights, privileges, and immunities spoken of in those amendments are, as a whole, unique to America.
Even in First World countries like Canada or the United Kingdom, there aren’t any true protections for free speech. Nor is there the ability to defend yourself with arms against the threat of government tyranny. Nor is there the assertion that certain natural rights are granted to you by God through your humanity and cannot be taken away.
America is, at its heart, an idealistic project unlike any the world has ever known. Yet the Founders weren’t recklessly utopian. They knew the creation of the United States required a prudent compromise with the sinful institution of slavery; that without the southern colonies, the Revolution would have been doomed before its first breath.
In the 19th century, America took a great step towards living up to the ideals of its Founding. The Civil War and the final sacrifice of 700,000 dead led to a more perfect realization of Jefferson’s affirmation, while the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments engrained it into law. In the 20th century, renewed efforts saw the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The long march towards fulfilling the founding promise of our republic continues. We and future Americans must be worthy of that challenge. It means taking seriously the education of our children as well as President Reagan’s reminder that an appreciation for freedom is not passed on through the bloodstream — it must be retaught, reinstituted, and cherished by starry-eyed immigrants and longtime citizens alike.
This July 4, as I with an indescribable pride look forward to celebrating my first Independence Day as an American citizen, I will tell all who listen: Yes, this is the greatest country in the world. Even amidst our present crisis, I am filled with undaunted confidence that, if we remember why America has always been the hope of the earth, if we rediscover and re-enshrine our Founding principles, we’ll emerge stronger than ever, and able to face anything that comes our way.