I have had to remind myself of late that there is much to be
proud of as an American. And I have not been prouder for a long time than I was
last night listening to this year’s recipients of the Merage Foundation for the
American Dream’s National Leadership Awards. Paul Merage family’s foundation is
dedicated to “Helping Immigrants Join Mainstream America.” Mr. Merage is
himself an immigrant from Iran, which he left in 1979 by necessity. But his
choice to settle in the United States was his, and the Merage Foundation is one
of his ways of expressing thanks for the opportunities that opened up to him
here and to give something back to help keep America the dynamic, innovative home
to immigrants that has been such an important component of our success as a
America is the wealthiest nation on earth because it is the
most productive. Many other countries provide us with first class competition
these days. We will retain our markets and our edge only through remaining
productive and innovative. We will be the best only as long as our workers and
entrepreneurs are the best trained, best equipped, and best incentivized to
continually perfect processes and innovate.
America is exceptional among nations in that it is almost
totally a nation of immigrants – self selected immigrants who chose to come to
our environment in which they were free to work hard and experiment. Mr. Merage
noted that immigrants must change to adapt to their new homes and that a
culture of change is good for innovation. In our globalized, highly competitive
market, innovation is our competitive edge. Mr. Merage stated that those who
say that America’s best days are behind her are wrong. They are wrong because
of the continual infusion of enthusiasm and innovation from a never-ending
inflow of eager new immigrants.
Mr. Merage also noted that no nation can receive new
immigrants without some trepidation and worry about how they will fit in and
adapt to its culture and ways. Fear is a powerful emotion. Mr. Merage noted
that we can all understand the fears of Arizonans and others over whether our
relatively open borders are letting in the wrong people. Fear can cloud good judgment,
for example, about who are criminals and where they come from. But America
remains the most welcoming of all countries to our great benefit. Its can do
spirit and the general decency of its people are magnets for the world’s best
and brightest and most hard working. The Merage Foundation is dedicated to
helping them assimilate successfully.
This years winners of the National Leadership Awards where:
Eric Benhamou (Algeria), Chairman and CEO of Benhamou Global Ventures, cofounder
of Bridge Communications, and CEO of 3Com and Palm; Amador S. Bustos (Mexico),
Chairman and CEO of Bustos Media in California; Roger Cohen (England),
Columnist for the New York Times; Gloria Estefan (Cuba), singer, composer and
author; Dikembe Mutombo (Congo), Former NBA star; Arnold Schwarzenegger
(Austria), Governor of California and former Terminator; and Ahmed H. Zewail
(Egypt), Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1999. The event was cosponsored by the
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and I am grateful to my friend
Steve Meeter for inviting me.
Each winner addressed us with touching stories of how and
why they came to America and how they flourished here financially and
spiritually. The Terminator spoke to us by video because of the elections in
California that day. Most of them expressed understanding but sadness that fear
had pushed Arizona to trample on some cherished American qualities of openness
to immigrants. Sorting out a proper balance and policy toward immigration is
not and will not be easy but it is a critical, pressing need.
The most dramatic address was by Dr. Halel Esfandiari,
Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Middle East Program.
At last years awards dinner, Ms. Esfandiari was in prison in Tehran, where she
had been since May 8, 2007. She had returned to her native Iran in December
2006 to visit her 93-year-old mother. The blood curdling story of her arrest
and imprisonment can be found on the Woodrow
Wilson center website. She
told us that those at last year’s awards dinner had prayed for her release and
here she was. Keep those prayers coming, she said, there is so much more to do.
Paul Merage summed up the spirit of the evening by noting
that the symbol of America must remain the welcoming Statue of Liberty, not The
Wall (pick your favorite).