My dear friend Mariam Ghazaryan is one of the most remarkable people I’ve had the pleasure to know. Let me give you a brief explanation why. (For the sake of her privacy, I’ve changed certain identifying details.).
While just a baby, she fled with her parents — who were still basically kids themselves — out of Iran to escape the tyranny of the Ayatollah. She ended up in a refugee camp in Holland for much of her childhood and had to endure all the myriad struggles that come with that experience.
Then at last, the Ghazaryan family was able to become American citizens, a marvelous blessing but certainly not the end of their hardship. Like every immigrant family, they were forced to start from the bottom of the economic strata and begin a slow, steady climb up. Yet even with all of these barriers, Mariam — through her force of intellect and tenacity, toughness and tender heart — was able to graduate from UCLA, then gain acceptance to one of the best medical schools in the country.
At this very moment, she’s sitting in a library in Vermont, authoring groundbreaking research that will advance the field of dermatology. Her paper is being supported with a $20,000 grant from one of the major national foundations in the field.
All in all, Mariam is the sort of young woman who doesn’t just make you proud to be an American — she makes you proud to be a human being.
And yet for much of our history, we shut our doors to individuals like her. As I’ve written in these pages previously, the federal government abided by a racist policy that limited immigration visas almost exclusively to white Europeans. It took the determined work of millions of activists during the civil rights movement to change the status quo for the better.
Those efforts culminated in the passage of the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act, which opened up America to the world. Under the terms of this legislation, every individual, no matter their race or creed, would have an equal chance to be a citizen. It was a large step forward toward fulfilling Dr. King’s vision of the nation as a “Beloved Community,” a refuge where all humanity could find peace and prosperity, and none would be afraid.
As a result, in the ensuing decades, millions of non-white immigrants like Mariam seized the priceless opportunity to leave their place of birth and become Americans.
Surprisingly, while this transformation was taking place, both Republicans and Democrats looked on approvingly. In President Ronald Reagan’s final speech, he paid tribute to our new diversity with an eloquence that has been rarely matched since:.
“Other countries may seek to compete with us; but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on Earth comes close. This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation. While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America we breathe life into dreams.”
Everything changed, however, after the emergence of Trumpism. In a radical shift from Reagan’s humane vision, the modern right now argues welcoming so many minorities through the Hart-Cellar Act was a terrible mistake. They claim since non-white immigrants typically vote progressive, something must be done to stop more of them from coming before the nation is ruined forever. According to the conspiracy theory promoted by this nativist coalition, liberal elites want these foreigners to replace the current population and make it impossible for Republicans to hold power.
As Fox News’ Tucker Carlson put it in a recent editorial, “Demographic change is the key to the Democratic Party’s political ambitions. Let’s say that again for emphasis, because it is the secret to the entire immigration debate: Demographic change is the key to the Democratic Party’s political ambitions. In order to win and maintain power. Democrats plan to change the population of the country.”
Now it is certainly true that the new wave of minorities we’ve welcomed into our country have been a boon for liberals — President Barack Obama would have had a much harder time getting elected without them.
But think about how crazy the conservatives’ argument is. These fellows see the 1965 immigration reform as nothing more than a threat to Republicans. In reality, it was one of our country’s greatest accomplishments, a rebuttal to Nazi Germany’s vision of white supremacist cruelty.
The times call for leaders like Ronald Reagan who have the courage to protect this noble legacy. Few tasks in the 21st century are more important.
Our growing diversity is not an attack on any political party, it is the centerpiece of this nation’s soul. Unlike other governments, we emphasize ideals, not ethnicity. If you believe in freedom and justice, democracy and human rights, you too can be an American. And when you come to our shores, there will not be a wall or hatred, a lack of opportunity or discrimination before the law — we will welcome you home.
There’s a growing part of our population that thinks adopting such a beautiful vision was a bad idea. That we must abandon the achievements of the civil rights movement for something far harsher and more brutal.
Yet every time I hear such cruelty, I can only think of my friend, working her tail off in some corner of University of Vermont Medical School, so excited to embark on a life of service and contributions to the world. Immigrants like Mariam did not come to harm our country. Quite the opposite. They are its fondest hope, the living answer to the prayer of our ancestors that America would one day become a nation for all.
To my Republican friends: Instead of bleating about how we must curb immigration to prevent the Democrats from seizing power, how about you instead follow Mariam’s example, pick yourselves up by your bootstraps, and just work harder at appealing to minorities?
Trust me: she’s a darling. Promote policies founded on having a heart for justice, and she’d give you a chance to persuade her.
Joshua Heath is a Santa Clarita resident. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays, and rotates among local Democrats. He can be reached at [email protected].