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July 2, 2013 1:59 pm
This is the week when, every year, an enthusiastic local real estate agent goes around the neighbourhood and plants little American flags in front gardens, flower pots and anything else that comes handy. It is a nice gesture, because flying the flag is perfectly appropriate on any national day, which in the US falls on July 4, Independence Day.
Since the calamity of September 11 2001, celebrations and the ritual consumption of hamburgers, hot dogs and barbecued chicken have sometimes taken on more serious tones. At baseball games, “God Bless America” is sung rather than “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the middle of the seventh inning, known as the stretch (it is also when stadiums stop selling beer).
To me, this doesn’t seem quite right since there is supposed to be a separation of church and state in the US – and there are few higher states of grace than baseball. Other ceremonies have become quite militarised, incomplete without the presence of, and public reverence towards, men and women in uniform.
But there is another tradition, of quite long standing, which is particularly relevant today. July 4 is a popular day for immigrants to be sworn in as US citizens, in ceremonies that may be large or small but that will almost certainly feature a welcoming video message from President Barack Obama. He spoke earlier this year at a naturalisation event for US soldiers and could appear in person on Thursday, as both vice-president Joe Biden and president George W Bush have done.
In 2007 at Disneyworld in Florida, more than 1,000 immigrants were welcomed as Americans in a single Independence Day event, not as large as some of the late Sun Myung Moon’s mass marriages in South Korea but an impressive number nonetheless. In Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia, more than 3,000 people have been naturalised since 1963.
Most of these naturalisation ceremonies are presided over by immigration officials, judges, cabinet members, military officers (for those who qualify for citizenship by serving in uniform) and, of course, celebrities. The featured speaker on Thursday at Monticello will be Dave Matthews, the South African born but now naturalised rock singer immensely popular on college campuses (Jefferson, nothing if not eclectic, would have approved the choice).
Whatever the famous say to the new huddled masses is particularly apposite now, as the resolution of the immigration reform bill reaches critical mass. One messy version, good in parts, terrible in others, has already passed the Senate with bipartisan support, but the House of Representatives, where Republicans consider compromise a dirty word, is another matter entirely.
With speaker John Boehner unable or unwilling to lead, or playing such a deep game he might as well be on Mars, his chamber seems to be opting for a piecemeal approach, almost certainly omitting the good parts of the Senate bill.
This nation of immigrants, whose composition has changed so much over the past 237 years, is still evolving in directions that most Republicans cannot tolerate. They lost the last presidential election because they were seen as the party of discrimination – against immigrants, but also against women, homosexuals and anybody else who never had a full place at the old white man’s table.
That bodes ill for their chances in future presidential elections, even if, for a while, they cling to blocking positions in Congress. Social beliefs like theirs are strong in the US south and the rest of the Bible Belt, added to which the iniquitous consequences of gerrymandering leave few truly competitive swing districts.
In fact, most Republicans fear being “primaried” by opponents far to their right – the Tea Party in other words. And, in their current state of denial after 2012, incumbents only protect their right flank. The Democrats’ best hope for gains is that a Republican nominee will be too extreme for general public consumption, as happened in the last two elections.
My main problem with the followers of the Tea Party movement is not with their convictions, wrong though they are, but that they talk only to each other. Listening to Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas talk on the House floor, as he does regularly, is to be in an echo chamber of their beliefs. But if enough of them gather together on Capitol Hill, they will readily tell Mr Boehner to get stuffed and kick him out of his job if he disagrees.
Immigration reform is in trouble in the House. Its Republican members would be better off emulating my real estate agent in her simple gesture of patriotism rather than, in their xenophobia and general fear of change, making sure the numbers who can do that are limited.
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