I was walking with the throng after the last boom lit up the sky, listening to strains of "God Bless the USA" and thinking about what it means to be an American.
A few days earlier, my 13-year-old had opined that there is no definitive "American" culture. We're just a blend of many different world cultures, she observed, sparking discussion with my brother-in-law about constitutional democracy and McDonald's.
Of course, there is more to American culture than freedom and fries. We've got baseball and apple pie and "The Star Spangled Banner," fireworks on July Fourth and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and our own brand of football. We have favorite foods like pizza, tacos and Kung Pao chicken, which started with authentic recipes from other cultures but morphed into uniquely American concoctions.
That brings me to the elephant in the room, a fundamental thing that makes America unique: our status as a nation of immigrants. With the exception of those of pure Native American descent, nobody is "from here." In my 6-year-old daughter's elementary school, this is something to celebrate, with the sharing of family trees and recipes and many lessons on diversity.
In the "real" world, however, our melting pot heritage has become a stew of discontent that's starting to bubble over. Race relations in this country have never been easy, but it seems we've reached a tipping point where immigration reform is concerned.
Arizona's new law requiring police to check immigration status based on "reasonable suspicion" that a person is here illegally is a desperate step in the wrong direction. How could this law not result in racial profiling in a state where 30 percent of the population is of Hispanic or Latino origin? With drug cartel violence escalating along the border, it's easy to see why the state does not want to wait for federal reform. However, empowering police to question people on the street based on how they look or sound is a misguided attempt to address a complicated situation.
Illegal immigration is not a simple us-them problem. The violence on the Mexican border is fueled, in large part, by American guns and American demand for drugs. The supply of jobs for undocumented workers is sustained, in large part, by the economic system we all play a part in. Substandard wages for migrant workers, chambermaids and dishwashers contribute to low prices at supermarkets, hotels and restaurants. Unfair trade agreements with developing nations contribute to the poverty that makes people desperate enough to come here illegally.
We must address all of these issues, while also expediting legal immigration, tightening border security and figuring out how to treat the millions of illegal immigrants who are already here. The reform plan President Obama outlined in a recent speech at American University seems like a reasonable start.
The plan calls for improvements in border security and the system for tracking visas, since many illegal immigrants do not sneak across the border but, rather, overstay their legal visiting status. It would also stiffen penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers, decreasing incentives for people to come here illegally as well as the practice of undercutting legal immigrants and American-born citizens looking for work.
The most controversial proposal is the establishment of a "pathway to citizenship" for the undocumented workers who are already here, whereby they would admit they broke the law, register, pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English and begin a long process toward earning citizenship.
It's clearly not practical, cost-effective or morally right to round up and deport every person who is here illegally. Yes, they should pay a penalty for not following the rules, out of fairness to those who are pursuing citizenship through the proper channels. After that, if they are willing to work, pay taxes, contribute to their communities and stay out of trouble, why shouldn't they be allowed to stay?
Part of America's identity is its reputation as a place where anything is possible, where education and hard work are the keys to opportunity and prosperity. It's what brought my grandfather to Ellis Island from Greece 90 years ago and what continues to draw other bright and hard-working immigrants today.
As the debate over immigration reform heats up, we would do well to remember that America has always been a place of freedom and refuge from poverty and persecution.
That is, after all, what we celebrate on Independence Day.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.