Column: A trip to the U.S. Capitol reminds me what I celebrate this Fourth of July

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The air was muggy, and the afternoon sun baked the streets of the nation’s capital. But when I visited last month, I made a point to walk the two miles from my hotel to the U.S. Capitol instead of taking an Uber, so I could see it in all its glory.

I didn’t have much time for sightseeing, but a pilgrimage to the seat of American government was a must. Since Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of thousands stormed it to try to stop the electoral vote count that would officially make Joe Biden president, the symbol of our democracy has stood as a reminder of how tenuous it is.

Before that wannabe coup, the U.S. Capitol was an abstraction for me, a series of images — that stunning dome, those imposing columns, but especially the magnificent steps — where a bunch of politicians passed laws but mostly grandstanded. Hell, I didn’t even know there was a front and back entrance until I approached from Pennsylvania Avenue. I had been to D.C. before but hit the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and a few other landmarks, not the Capitol.

It’s huge! The white building gleams like a promontory of power, with trees from across the U.S. spread across the grounds below. Its magnetism was such that I paid no attention to the Reflecting Pool, the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial or the Peace Monument below it.

What broke the spell was the people around me.

Filipino men in barongs and Muslim women in hijabs. Argentines joking around in lilting Spanish and Australians with their distinctive garrulous accent. I’m not sure if they were foreign tourists or immigrants, but it was easy to distinguish them from the locals, who rushed toward the rest of their day uninterested in the splendor the rest of us basked in. We lookie-loos used the Capitol as the backdrop for group photos and selfies, paying little attention to the barricades and police officers blocking us from ascending the steps of the West End.

That scene is on my mind on the 248th birthday of this country, especially after the horror show that was last week’s presidential debate between Biden and the man the insurrectionists wanted to keep in office, Donald Trump. All anyone talked about in the immediate aftermath was Biden’s performance, with some, including Democrats, deriding it as akin to the Crypt Keeper from “Tales from the Crypt.”

Biden was no silver-tongued Socrates — but he never has been, and the commander in chief improved as the night went along. Besides, I’ll take his fuddy-duddiness over the dictatorial doom-and-gloom and lies Trump offered that night.

But Biden broke my heart, because he stayed mostly silent while Trump lambasted immigrants as the gravest threat this nation has ever faced. The convicted felon barely bothered to distinguish legal from illegal immigrants. He claimed Biden “open[ed] up our country to people that are from prisons, people that are from mental institutions, insane asylums, terrorists,” going on to mention “mental institutions” two more times, as if mentally ill people are subhuman. He described the U.S.-Mexico border as “the worst … in the history of the world” and “the most dangerous place anywhere in the world,” which will come as news to residents of Gaza and those on the front lines of the Ukraine war.

When we needed someone to stand up for our nation’s newcomers, to brag about how this country remains a beacon for the tired and poor huddled masses of the world instead of the “failing nation” Trump thinks we are (a point he repeated five times), Biden instead insisted he was far better at cracking down on illegal immigration than Trump made him out to be.

Trump’s most damning line of the night — “I really don’t know what he [Biden] said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said either” — was in response to the president mumbling his way through a boast about increasing the number of Border Patrol agents and making it harder to claim asylum.

If Biden won’t stand up to xenophobic bull spouted by a bully, who will?

I’ve lived my life hearing that unchecked immigration, legal or not, will ruin the United States. I’ve never seen this apocalypse come. Nah, it’s been mostly native-born white Americans who keep whining that we’re no longer great, yet do little to make things better, other than moving to Tennessee or Idaho. It’s immigrants and their descendants who have kept the embers of the American way from dying by emphasizing hard work, community and personal responsibility.

Newcomers who want to better their lives are who we should celebrate on the Fourth of July. Yet multiple polls show that a majority of Americans — even Latinos — feel our borders are under assault. The temperature around immigration is even nastier than during the days of Prop. 187, the ballot initiative that California voters passed 30 years ago in an attempt to make life miserable for undocumented immigrants. Back then, people banded together to fight back. Now? Few seem to care.

The weight of it hit me as I walked around the Capitol to see its official entrance, where the insurrectionists invaded on Jan. 6. The sun was setting right behind the dome, casting a long, frigid shadow even on a hot day. Police were everywhere. Metal barricades blocked people from climbing the steps that led to the House of Representatives and the Senate chambers, and the Rotunda. A few tourists lingered alongside me but quickly left.

I approached an unfenced area, and a police officer politely but firmly told me to move on. It felt like a crime scene — and the victims are us.

Both sides of the political aisle claim it’s now evening in America, but I’ll forever remain an optimist. What else can I do? This country exceeded the expectations of my Mexican immigrant parents, and mine. It’s nowhere near perfect, but that’s what makes it so great — the United States belongs to those who work it, those who hope.

The day after my Capitol visit, I walked past the tourist entrance to the White House. The free public tours didn’t start until 9:30 in the morning, but the line to enter wound up and down the gate two hours before. Men in turbans stood next to college students wearing University of Wisconsin T-shirts. English and Spanish and Mandarin filled the air.

The American flags some people sported on their hats or as jewelry didn’t come off as a political statement but rather a symbol of communion. The guards who stood sentry were jovial. There were no complaints, nothing but excitement at the shared joy of what they were about to see.

That is the America I celebrate this Fourth of July — and pray that remains, come election day.

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