I grew up in North Carolina, went to public school and tried a little harder than what was generally considered cool. When I was 22, my years of hard work paid off, and I was accepted to Harvard Law School. But then I did something unusual. I deferred law school for a year to volunteer at an orphanage in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America.
From the first day, I was given a group of 27 boys to care for day and night. I got them up in the morning. I made sure they got breakfast and brushed their teeth. We did some last-minute studying. They went to school. We spent afternoons doing homework. Then we did chores, played soccer, ate dinner, studied some more and got ready for bed. It was exhausting.
Like any “parent,” I noticed that each of my boys had his own gifts. Reinaldo and Angel were great students – the type who in the States could have earned full rides to college. Erwin was on the other end of the spectrum. He struggled with math problems that Angel could have done in his sleep. But I’ve never met a harder worker. Sometimes he asked me to wake him at 5 a.m. for extra help with his homework. I reluctantly agreed. How could I say no?
Daniel and Felipe were charismatic, always chosen as captains of their sports teams. In another place, they would have been destined to vie for student body president. Dario was just an all-around nice guy. He stood up for the little kids and noticed when somebody seemed depressed.
That was more than a dozen years ago. If I think too hard about my boys’ lives now, it brings tears to my eyes. I know about a few of their struggles, but I’ve lost touch with most. While I grew up far from wealthy by American standards – but feeling that life’s opportunities were limitless – my boys in Bolivia knew not to dream too big. They realized they would get to go to school only until the eighth grade and would be fortunate to live in a home with electricity and running water.
Today we celebrate the birth of our nation. On this day in 1776, our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. In doing so, they announced a new kind of nation, one founded on an idea. They held, as we hold today, “These truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Yet it is evident that many people around the world are not free and have no opportunity to pursue happiness. Where they were born, life itself is far from guaranteed. The same was true for many of our forefathers; it’s why they left their homeland and came here to make a better life for themselves.
I wish my boys had the freedom to do the same. But after years of representing aspiring citizens, I know that’s not the case. Our nation’s immigration laws have not given them a way to do that – no line to get into and no papers they could fill out to get a process started. Even if they had the money to hire a lawyer, that wouldn’t help. I’ve been that lawyer, and I know.
But my boys’ circumstances are not unique. There simply is no box you can check that says, “I want to make a better life for my family.” And for the millions of aspiring citizens here without papers, there is currently no roadmap to citizenship, although the measure that recently passed the U.S. Senate leaves me hopeful.
On the Fourth of July, we remember that America is a land of freedom and opportunity. We honor our forefathers and their struggles when our laws – including our immigration system – live up to that ideal. And we build on our greatest strength when we welcome new Americans as neighbors.
Like so many others, my boys only want a chance – a chance at life, a chance at liberty and a chance at happiness. To me, that’s what America meant on that Fourth of July in 1776 and that is what it means today.
Dan Rearick is executive director of Uniting NC, a nonprofit working to make North Carolina a place where new Americans are welcomed.