After hearing the phrase “Make America Great Again” numerous times over the past two and a half years, I was forced to consider an unexpectedly difficult question: when was America “great”? Surely we can’t claim that our nation was “great” during the eras of slavery or Jim Crow, and it is doubtful that most would regard today’s America that is characterized by mass incarceration, income inequality and police brutality as a model for other countries.
After pondering the question for a while, I reached my conclusion. I believe that America became great in 1776 and has remained great since. I know that this may seem like it contradicts with what I mentioned earlier. After all, slavery was still legal, only rich white men could own property and the United States as we know it hadn’t even been formed yet (the Constitution was ratified in 1789).
These objections, however, rely on the belief that America is only a nation-state. Instead, I view America as not only a country but as a set of values that we should aspire to embody. The Declaration of Independence set forth ideals such as equality before the law, the concept of inalienable rights and the government deriving its legitimacy from the people, and it became the template for social justice movements throughout our nation’s history like the Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and the LGBTQ+ movements.
The United States has not always lived up to these ideals. In fact, I would argue that the nation has always been an imperfect one and has never fully realized the values set forth in one of its founding documents. There is no better example of these shortcomings than the country’s current immigration dilemma.
The question of who deserves American citizenship has been at the center of political debates for the last decade, from the arguably unconstitutional sanctuary cities to the disturbing family separations at the border. The United States should obviously have some immigration policy, as an open border policy would be a national security risk, but a strict policy would lose sight of our nation’s ideals.
During the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, children have been forced to appear in immigration court alone, and veterans who served multiple tours overseas have been deported back to a country they barely know. At the same time, over 3.6 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, known as ‘DREAMers’, are holding their breath as their legal protected statuses are in jeopardy.
All three of these situations seem to be antithetical to the ideals that America was built on. The U.S. was founded as a nation of immigrants, yet the divisive rhetoric surrounding the issue in recent years has made me wonder what it means to be an American today.
Despite being born in the U.S., and thus being a citizen, I can’t help but feel like I’m viewed as “not American enough” by people whose families have lived in the country for generations.
It’s time that we change our conception of what it means to be American. Our country should welcome those who embrace the values of freedom, equality and justice for all, regardless of their citizenship status or legal documents.
America has always been great, but it’s time for us to try to make our country more American.