Editor’s Note: Leon Panetta served as Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013, is chairman of The Panetta Institute for Public Policy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The President of the United States recently made a vulgar and disparaging remark about immigrants to our country from poor and impoverished areas of the world. The remark is unsurprising – it came from a President who seeks to close our country off from the rest of the world.
He has proposed imposing travel bans on visitors from some Muslim-majority nations, building harmful walls, deporting thousands of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador, and even ending protections for hundreds of thousands of law-abiding recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs – known as Dreamers – living within our borders.
It is important that the world knows that, although he may be President, Donald Trump does not speak for the overwhelming majority of Americans. This is not who we are.
I am the son of Italian immigrants who came to this country from an impoverished area of Italy. Like millions of other immigrants, they came because they believed they could give their children a better life in this country. That is the American dream. That is who we are.
That promise is enshrined on the Statue of Liberty: “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!” That is who we are.
As Secretary of Defense, I saw proud men and women from families from across the world who volunteered to serve this nation in uniform and were willing to fight and die for America. That is who we are.
We are a land of immigrants. The diversity this confers on America is our strength because immigrants live the American Dream. They and their families are part of our communities, our schools, our businesses, our workforce. We all pledge allegiance to the same flag – to “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” That is who we are.
President Trump, who himself is the grandson of immigrants and is married to an immigrant, nevertheless has criticized those who would seek the same opportunity to better themselves as his own family did. Throughout our history, we have struggled to live up to our founding principle: that we are all created equal under God, regardless of our race, creed, religion, color, sexual preference, or whether we are born in poverty or wealth. We respect the human dignity of all people. This President may not embrace those values, but we do. That is who we are.
Last month, Army Private First Class Emmanuel Mensah lost his life saving his neighbors from a horrific fire in a Bronx, New York, apartment building. He was 28 years old, an immigrant from Ghana – a nation in Africa, which our President now denigrates. Private Mensah was not yet a citizen when he enlisted in the United States Army. He, like many other immigrants serving in our military, exemplified bravery, heroism, and sacrifice. There are some 900 Dreamers serving in our military today, women and men willing to risk their own lives for freedom. That is who we are.
The world needs to know that presidents may come and go, but that the fundamental values of who we are as a people will never change.
This week, Congress has an opportunity to speak for the majority of Americans by passing the Dream Act, which would give protection and a path to citizenship for the 800,000 Dreamers currently living in our country – the only home they have ever known. Rather than turning our backs on these students, soldiers, and business owners, we should lead by example and embrace them. America must remain the beacon of hope to the world because that is who we are and always will be.