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American Exceptionalism: Two Golden Doors

February 18, 2012


We in Laredo are the happy beneficiaries of a great inheritance. For more than a century, each February, our city leads the nation in celebrating the birthday of our first president. George Washington’s values, his acts, his words lay out for us how this nation came to be. We plunge ourselves into 18th Century colonial culture imagining, through pageant and parade, those first moments of national life. We renew our wonder at how a small group of extraordinary men and women birthed a nation.

In Laredo, our celebration of Washington’s birthday has expanded far beyond reverential scrutiny of the great man’s life. As the Pocahontas Council reminds us, in celebrating Washington’s birthday we retell what Ezra Pound called “the tale of the tribe:” Who are we? Where did we come from? Where might we go? What is the story of our tribe? Is it an exceptional one? If our story be exceptional, is this our defining characteristic?

Americans have erected two Golden Doors, two passageways to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, unprecedented in human history. The first we placed in New York Harbor; the second we created in our national network of higher education. The first memorializes our origins; the second opens to what we might become. Both were difficult to build and both require continuing maintenance. No other nation has erected portals of the magnitude of our two Golden Doors. This is American exceptionalism.

Our first Golden Door captures how we came to be. The only universal truth of the American “tribe” is that we are, all of us, immigrants. Our founders did not beget a tribe; they called one together. And this gathered tribe issued, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the most dramatic and far-reaching invitation in human history. Emma Lazarus, from a prominent family of Sephardic immigrants in New York City, composed our invitation to the world in a sonnet she completed as the Statue of Liberty was being made. We engraved that invitation on the statue.

In her sonnet, Lazarus recalls the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, an arrogant assertion of Greek power and dominion. She contrasts that “brazen giant” with our new colossus, a “Mother of Exiles.” The poem ends with our most powerful statement of American exceptionalism:

                                    “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

                                    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

                                    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;

                                    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

                                    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

                                    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Through that Golden Door all have passed to find their places in this gathered tribe. In the late 1800s, for example, my immigrant ancestor, William Henry Keck, left England for New Orleans, saw his wife and child buried at sea during the transatlantic voyage, and eventually got off the train, with his newly acquired American family, in Cotulla –because that is where the train stopped. End of the line. Beginning of new life. Seven generations have passed between that hopeful traveler and his great-great-great-great grandson, my grandson, Adam Salah Rafati, who sits with us today. On the Rafati side, Adam is a third generation American.

We may remember the truth of our origin, but in the retelling we often begin to imagine native ownership of the comfortable place we inhabit. After a few generations, we can easily become like that redoubtable graduate of Smith College from Savannah, Georgia. Her college roommate from New York City was about to arrive by train for a visit in Savannah. Upon greeting her life-long friend at the train station, the Savannah Smithie asked: “Did you have a good trip, my dear?” “Why yes, I did,” replied the New Yorker. “Do you often travel by train?” “Oh my, no!” replied her startled Southern classmate. “I have no need of travel. I live here.”

Unlike the Savannah grand-dame, none of us began by living here; we are all recent arrivals, and Miss Liberty, speaking through Lazarus’ poem, reminds us in unsparing language who we were on our journey—tired, poor, huddled, yearning, wretched, homeless, tempest-tost. How, then, do we frame our invitation to humanity, our promise of deliverance, in a fair and manageable system?

In the yearning to breathe free, in desperation to escape some “teeming shore,” not everyone uses the Golden Door. Those who do not nonetheless fold themselves into our society. They bring children who enter our schools, become fully American, and then discover that in spite of a life here, they are not citizens. The presence of these young people most assuredly violates our immigration laws, laws that were never conceived to speak to this great human crisis.

In 2007, three senators, two Republicans and one Democrat, placed before the nation a renewed version of the so-called “Dream Act.” Their effort would capture in statute Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s wise dictum that life in the law is experience, not logic. The Act provides an experiential pathway stretching over many years—citizenship, student visas, work permits.

We in Laredo, living immersed in two cultures, enriched by the presence of many more, understand better perhaps than most Americans how precious the Golden Door. What do we say to young people of talent and accomplishment, here illegally through no act of their own, already across the threshold? Shouldn’t we devise a mechanism to lead a new generation of admirable lives and significant achievement toward legal residency? The Dream Act, in its latest revisions, requires more of those who wish to stay than we ask of those born here.

In October 2011, Harvard Business School Professors Michael Porter and Jan Rivik surveyed 10,000 alumni of the school. Are American businesses competitive in the global market? If so, why? If not, why not? The results of the survey were published in January 2012, in a report titled Prosperity at Risk. 10,000 Harvard Business School alumni responded from 40 states and 121 countries, inventorying our country’s strengths and weaknesses. Among the many suggestions to improve our global competitiveness: Recast our immigration laws. We need talent from abroad. The Dream Act is good business—for our country, for our State, and for South Texas.

We Americans have, since Washington’s day and since Emma Lazarus composed her sonnet, erected a second Golden Door. That Door shines most splendidly in this community. It was in February 1993, that the late Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock was honored as Mr. South Texas at this very luncheon, in this very ballroom. At that moment, he announced that Laredo would host a four-year university of the first class and that its name would be “Texas A&M International University.” Its mission: to change the face of this region and to extend the American dream to all its citizens.

And so began the felicitous link between Mr. South Texas and your Laredo university. Senator Zaffirini, also Mr. South Texas, authored the bill creating the University and secured the funding to begin and continue construction. Governor Ann Richards, also Mr. South Texas, presided over the groundbreaking. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, also Mr. South Texas, authorized the building of both our wellness center and our student success center. Congressman Henry Bonilla, also Mr. South Texas, announced at this event a federal grant of $1,000,000 to remodel existing space for writing and advisement centers. Congressman Henry Cuéllar, also Mr. South Texas, supported our funding in the Texas House, and continues as our Congressman in Washington. Richard Raymond, Ryan Guillén, and Tracy King, all within the Texas House of Representatives, ensure crucial financial stability.

Most striking about our own Golden Door is its beauty. Many call this the most beautiful campus in the A&M System. Populated by the now-famous deer and javalinas, this campus offers Laredoans the largest and most thoroughly visited green space in our city. The University’s buildings, programs, and scholarships have stimulated large-scale philanthropy in this region. Twice yearly we publish, in hardcopy and on the web, a full donors’ list. That list is, happily, much too long to read today, but I can give you some feel for who contributes to higher education for our region, and why these individuals, families, and corporations have chosen to build buildings, endow scholarships, create programs.

In each case, the gift leans to the future. The first group, in time and in scale, is those who hold public office. David Dewhurst, standing on this spot as Mr. South Texas, captured the best that political life achieves: “To paint the landscape of South Texas with the dreams of its young people.” Next, in that unique American alliance, the private sector completes and expands what begins as a public work. Many families have endowed permanent scholarships and made gifts, to honor the memory of loved ones, or to mark the family’s presence in the life of this region. Businesses and corporations fund programs and scholarships, demonstrating their commitment to a brighter future for young people. Laredo’s many charitable trusts perpetuate in a new generation the good fortune of those who share their significant resources. Finally, our rich array of civic organizations and clubs funds scholarships, persuaded that their gifts must include education. From you sitting in this room thousands of young people have received the gift of new life, powered by TAMIU.

The County of Webb and the City of Laredo, embodiments of our common will, can harness the University’s resources to improve quality of life here. We are in discussions with the County and the City to explore how the University, with their support, might best become catalyst and venue for the changes and improvements we all desire.

Where does sustained support lead? What comes next? Today we again look to you, the Laredo area community, to help build three new programs: First, to our program in systems engineering we will add petroleum engineering—and hope to secure sufficient community support to request special funding in the 2013 legislative session. Second, our leadership program, originating in a partnership between TAMIU and the Kennedy School at Harvard, teaches young people how to understand leadership. Third, a partnership with our own public television station, KLRN, promises all Laredo a new public face, an opportunity to get our story to state and national audiences, to make known our rich culture of trade, of business, of art and music.

American exceptionalism means a gathered tribe that bundles talent from all branches of the human family. It also means universal access to the institutions that will teach each member of the tribe to construct his or her life. The Harvard Business School graduates cite American capacities for innovation and for entrepreneurship as our American strengths. The Golden Door to tribal union and the Golden Door to learning create and nurture these distinctly American traits, the endless energy of our exceptionalism.

If we can agree that Americans are exceptional, and that our Golden Doors mark our exceptional state, we might end our discussion with two important questions: First, what frame of mind best captures our exceptional identify? Second, what should we do to protect and enhance that identity?

Two Laredoans suggest for us first, how American exceptionalism orders our thinking and second, how it appears in action. In speaking with University students, Judith Zaffirini always challenges them with the same words: “Our dream is to see your achievements exceed ours, that you be better than we have been, that you reach higher and accomplish more than we.” Most of the world sees it the other way. Children are born to serve their parents. In our society, we view our role as providing for that day when we willingly step off the stage and American exceptionalism leans forward in a new generation.

For American exceptionalism in action, we need only return to the words of E.H. Corrigan at the dedication of the Sharkey-Corrigan Organ. Mr. Corrigan stated: “I am a single man. The line ends with me. Many of you have or will have children, have or will have grandchildren, have or will have great-grandchildren. I give the organ to them.”

The Golden Doors still open to the future. In South Texas, we hold them wide.