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American Freedom Through An Immigrant's Eyes

As a lawyer for Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, William Holston has represented immigrants to this country since 1999. He explains in this commentary how immigrants have helped him see our country’s freedoms with fresh perspective.

A few years ago a client from Zimbabwe happened to be in my office on election day. She mentioned how remarkable it was that we were in the middle of an election and there were “no trucks with soldiers roaring down the street.’ Her comment showed me I take a peaceful transition to power for granted. The same held true for my religious freedom until I spoke to a family from Eritrea. The government put padlocks on the front door of their church and began arresting people for simply reading a Bible.

A client from Ethiopia had been active in pro-democracy activities for over 30 years. He was imprisoned for over 5 years, but he didn’t stop his activism after being released. He was imprisoned several more times, and beaten and tortured. I saw the scars on his body from the beatings. Fearing for his life, he finally fled his home and came to America.

At the trial I asked him, "Sir, you had been repeatedly warned to stop protesting, why despite those warnings did you continue?" With tears in his eyes he said, "For my children. There is a price for liberty. There is a cost for freedom."

I once had a client from Cameroon testify about multiple jailings for her activism. The judge rather sarcastically remarked, ‘you must be awfully brave.’ Indeed she was. We Americans barely remember that sort of passion for freedom.  Both of these clients reminded me of the sacrifices made by the men and women who founded our country.

Each Fourth of July we pause to recall the birth of our country. This is an opportunity for us to reflect on the ideals of what it means to be an American citizen. We should celebrate our freedoms for the precious gifts they are for us. And we should resolve take a moment to commit ourselves personally to the task of maintaining those freedoms. Be an informed citizen and vote for instance.

Immigrants clearly see America’s opportunities. My friend Jean Luc from Rwanda tells me that “(L)iving here has given me tremendous opportunities, access to an education, freedom to pursue my passion as an artist and the possibility to access resources needed to accomplish my goals.”

Immigrants want to give back. One of our former clients, now a citizen serves in the American military. He told me he joined the American military as a  chance to really see America as an ordinary American. Jose Guiterrez was a Guatemalan teenager, who hopped freight trains to come to America and volunteer as a Marine. He was the second American to die in combat in Iraq. Since 9/11 America has naturalized over 100 American soldiers posthumously.

This Fourth of July think about what it means to choose America as your home. I had the chance to speak at a Naturalization Ceremony a year ago. The room was full of people who came to America to be free. I told the assembled new citizens I appreciate the fact that their citizenship cost them a lot. One of the people taking the oath was one of our former asylum clients. She fled persecution and now is a school administrator. She told the assembled crowd: “I feel free. Every American is free, as the Constitution says. I feel very secure with all the advantages that come with American citizenship.”

William Holston is Executive Director of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.