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Independence Day

The celebration of a nation of immigrants

It’s no wonder that fireworks are Independence Day’s signature. The holiday is explosive with emotion.
    And packed with participation.
    This week’s 8 Days a Week calendar will tell you that throughout Chesapeake Country, as in all America, in communities large and small we wave flags; march, roll and pedal in parades; bake pies; gather for picnics and barbecues; listen to concerts; eat ice cream; watch baseball; make big bangs and sparkling explosions; and pledge our allegiance to the United States of America.
    We’re proud to think of ourselves as one people on this celebratory anniversary of independence and rebellion.
    Thus this is the best day of the year for new citizens to join the family, and the places they do so are often historic. In our region, new citizens will be naturalized in the homes of three signers of the Declaration of Independence: George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and, in historic Annapolis, in the home and gardens of William Paca, where 40 new citizens take the oath of allegiance at 10am July 4.
    The ceremony, open to all, builds an arching bridge between those sainted founding fathers and these newcomers — who are kindred spirits in more ways than in the shared title of Americans.
    We’re all immigrants or their descendants, from George, Thomas and William to Canadian-born John Belcher, one of the 40 who’ll leave Paca Gardens as Americans on the morning of July 4, 2011.
    He, however, is a legal immigrant. Not all of us can make that claim.
    Many of us came uninvited and unwanted. The Williamsburg colonists in 1607, the Pilgrims in 1620, the Baltimore colonists in 1634: Neither they nor their king had legal right to give or take the new land they settled. Nonetheless they came, arriving hungry, greedy to take their share. That’s as true of the ancestors of those founding fathers as it is of the tide of darker skinned immigrants who so trouble us today.
    Immigration is a daring act. Who but the bold, the desperate or the hopeful would undertake perilous journeys into uncertainty? By sea or by land, all immigrants but those enslaved have come banging on these shores. At these doors, none found the welcome mat laid out.
    Our distaste for the newest generation — the aliens, worse, the illegal aliens — likely gives them no sourer a welcome than came to your ancestors or mine.
    Each generation of immigrants has been demonized. African. Irish. German. Italian. Eastern European. Chinese. Jewish. Korean. Latino. Arabic.
    Only the first generations, the English and Spanish, turned the tables, doing in the natives before they could be done in.
    One way or another, all our grandparents have been the aliens darkening America’s door.
    But that’s easy to forget. In a land where roots are easily pulled and set, our memories are short.
    Who made you an American? My Scots-Irish Martins, Buntings and Nairns are mostly a mystery to me. My only clue is an early 20th century Chicago census that cites great-grandfather Martin’s birthplace as Ireland.
    I know more, but not nearly enough, about my Italian grandparents who immigrated in the last quarter of 1920, enabling my mother to be born in the U.S.A. on January 1, 1921.
    Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, has an Irishman’s name, but his mother immigrated to America from Lithuania. It’s because of her, he says, that he’s working — against the odds — to pass a federal Dream Act, to give children of illegal aliens opportunity to gain citizenship if they graduate from high school and either enter military service or attain a two-year college degree. Days before Independence Day, the U.S. Senate held its first hearing on the act. Meanwhile, some of the Dream Act is in a full package of immigration legislation New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez just brought to the Senate.
    Maryland passed its own Dream Act this year to bring immigrants into the American family, authorizing in-state college tuition for some children of illegal aliens. Whether that law stands may be up to us: Republicans, including Del. Ron George in Anne Arundel County, just made a deadline for gathering signatures to petition a ballot referendum.
    George collected 200 signatures in his jewelry stores. In Southern Anne Arundel, big notice boards at the intersection of Rts. 2 and 258 urged drivers to stop and sign.
    Immigration is an explosive issue. Who gets to be part of the American family sets off fireworks in us already here. Whatever you think, it’s worth noting that hours before we shoot off the fireworks to celebrate Independence Day 2011, brand new Americans are joining the family in the very old home of William Paca, who became a new American on July 4, 1776.