Fox News made the correct decision to take down a recent column that argued the U.S. Olympic Committee would like to change its motto to “Darker, Gayer, Different.” Because when they marched onto the field together, in the bitter cold of PyeongChang, the U.S. Olympic team stood out on the world stage. Not because of the delegation’s record size, boasting 242 members. And not because of its especially high-caliber athletes who are poised to compete for the most medals.
But because this U.S. Winter Olympic team is starting to, slowly, look more like the country it represents. That’s something to celebrate, not mock.
Maame Biney, was born in Ghana and is the first African-American woman to represent the U.S. in speed-skating. She told the Washington Post, “I was born in Ghana, so I am Ghanaian,” she said. “But I identify myself as American, because I’m here to represent America and do great things for America.”
Chloe Kim (pictured at the top) is a first generation Korean-American and the first female boarder to complete back-to-back 1080s inside the halfpipe and won gold as the youngest Olympic halfpipe medalist. Kim’s father moved to the U.S. in 1982 to study engineering, but later quit his job because, as he told Kim’s mother, “I’m done working, I’m going to make my daughter an Olympian.”
Similarly to Chloe, Mirai Nagasu and her immigrant parents made sacrifices for her Olympic dream, too. Nagasu, the daughter of two Japanese immigrants who run a sushi restaurant in Arcadia, CA, became the first American woman to complete a triple axel at the Olympics.
With 11 Asian-Americans and ten African-Americans, this U.S. Olympic team projects a simple yet profound message to a global audience: that America remains, above all else, an idea. Biney and Kim, not even old enough to vote yet, remind the world that the U.S. is made up of talented, hard-working men and women — and their children — who come to our shores dreaming of a better life.
But this year’s games in South Korea will also take place against the backdrop of a complex and emotional debate here at home.
A changing country demographically and economically has created a sense of fear and anxiety in American life. Refugees and newcomers are increasingly viewed with skepticism — as cultural, economic and security threats. In order to make the country stronger, in this telling, we need to close America off from the world.
At the same time most Americans cherish immigrants for adding to the vitality of our cities and towns, and ensuring we have a growing economy. They know that 43% of companies in the Fortune 500 last year were founded or co-founded by immigrants or their children. They look up to Biney and Kim, but they are also grateful for the contributions of people like Emmanuel Mensah. Like Biney, Emmanuel is from Ghana. He joined the National Guard and later graduated from boot camp as Private Mensah. On December 28, after rescuing four of his neighbors, a fire raging through his apartment building caught up with him and he died of smoke inhalation.
There’s also William Ramirez — a father of two from Colombia, who saw a man try to shoot a Miami police officer. Ramirez courageously drove his van into the line of fire to protect the officer. He then rescued the man, and later told reporters, “I love this country.”
Many Americans are grappling with how to show compassion for newcomers like Mensah and Ramirez, who arrive here seeking a new beginning, with our desire to protect our security and our way of life. As a nation, are we ready for an honest conversation? Can we be a nation of laws and a nation of grace?
Pastors, police chiefs, and business owners across the nation have an answer.
Whether they are pastors in Georgia, police chiefs in Iowa or dairy owners in Idaho, these leaders don’t have radical or polarizing ideas about immigration. They have real-life experiences: they partner with immigrants on their beat, pray with them in church, and work with them on their farms. Immigrants are their neighbors, the owners of their favorite pizza shop, and their children’s best friends.
These Americans, who are in every community across the country, want to feel heard. They are the ones who can credibly make the case that immigrants help make small towns and big cities function. They can tell their congressperson and senators that while a fair immigration system and a secure border are critical, they don’t want to see the U.S. close its doors on people who want nothing more than to contribute and make a better life.
If we can’t listen to their concerns and find a sensible balance, our country runs the risk of losing its competitive edge. Not only will we fail to adequately protect against the most challenging security risks facing the U.S., we will lose out on attracting talented innovators and workers who will help power the American economy in the 21st century.
But more importantly, we won’t live up to our ideals. And that’s worth reflecting on when we watch Biney, Kim, and the rest of the U.S. team compete for gold in South Korea.