When my family and I were getting sworn in as the newest naturalized United States citizens, in the Spring of 1996, the judge had a microphone passed around, allowing each new citizen to state their feelings on this momentous occasion. Some were overwhelmed and said nothing, others spoke of their deep love and gratitude to America. When the microphone got into my hands, I remember saying something about feeling so fortunate to finally become a citizen of the country that I care so much about, and to be in a position to make a difference. Though that was 17 years ago, I remember that part clearly.
A friend of mine, himself a naturalized citizen from Denmark, told me once that no one loves America like the naturalized citizens (he is not shy about expressing his opinions, as you’ll see). Lars (or as he is sometimes known, Yon Yonson), came to America from Denmark as a youth, served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, got an education and became a mechanical engineer. For many years he worked for Beloit Corp. Now, retired, he spends most days with a protest sign of one kind or another, standing for what he believes in. Some days he stands in front of Congressman Paul Ryan’s office, other days you can find him up at the Capitol. Some people retire and travel, but Lars loves this country so much, he defended it as member of the United States Marine Corps, and now he fights for it as a peaceful protester. We each have our way of celebrating the freedom that this great country has given us and Lars has personally paid more than most for his right to express his opinion.
Having been born and raised in the Soviet Union, in essence, a dictatorship, my knowledge and passion for America can be hard to explain sometimes, because to me, America was always a dream, a place where the lucky people lived, a place that only existed in movies. People who lived there, could do whatever they wanted with their lives, their future was not predetermined, in short, it was the land of opportunity. And for the last nearly 25 years, I have been one of the lucky ones.
One of the many reasons I love this country, a reason so important to me, is because in America, except for the Native Americans, all of us are from someplace else, and that’s just a part of our national fabric. We expect the new immigrants to become part of our society, and we can’t wait for them to do it. We want them to speak English, to join in the civic process, to register to vote and to start businesses, to go to college and to become vested partners in our communities. This mindset makes America a unique nation in the world and I love it.
The fact that someone like me, who came to this country as a refugee, is able to pursue the American Dream, serve on the City Council in the town of over 60,000 people, and is able to mount a serious campaign to represent my District and my community in the State Assembly, is frankly beyond belief. Whenever I speak to my Russian relatives, I have to pinch myself (though in the beginning I had to explain, to their disbelief, that serving on the City Council carries neither monetary compensation nor special perks).
On this Independence Day, I urge you to remember that we live in an amazing country where regardless of what any given political leader does on any particular day, so many doors are still wide open for those who are willing to work hard to walk through them. There is no free lunch and not everyone succeeds, but the dream is alive. It is worth celebrating, and it is worth fighting for. When I became a naturalized citizen, I wanted to make a difference. These days, I am able to make a difference every day. With your help, I will be able to make a difference in Madison. And so can you.
Happy Independence Day!