The Declaration of Independence

America sometimes feels like a party to which you’re not always certain you’ve been invited. Oh, the hosts have said hello and they made tiny little gestures of welcome, but other people are looking at you funny and some people openly hiss.

I blame the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of the United States, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. You could call it the ultimate invite.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he wrote, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Who would want to skip a party like that? Even if it comes with certain caveats that seem to undercut the claims, suggesting that your results may vary?

Jefferson said you had the right to the pursuit of happiness, but significantly, he didn’t promise you happiness itself. The distinction seems small but it makes all the difference in the world.

I've been thinking about the Declaration of Independence. It’s impossible not to while the nation's leaders have once again taken up the task of passing immigration reform.

In Washington-speak the movement is called CIR, meaning comprehensive immigration reform. That’s also Washington-speak for the near certainty that comprehensive immigration reform will not be achieved. The nation’s bill crafters enjoy irony more than the rest of us, it seems.

Irony abounded when the Declaration of Independence was written, after all. Not all men were free then. Far from it. In fact, many tens of thousands of them arrived on these shores shackled by the ankles and then forced to work without wages for their entire lives.

The existence of American slavery highlighted a striking contradiction contained in the document (and in wider American society) then and now.

In Jefferson’s era he signed inspirational documents with one hand and ordered his slaves about with the other (Jefferson owned slaves). The Irish call this talking out of both sides of your mouth.

We like to imagine, or I do, that had we lived during the Civil War period, or World War II, or during the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, that I would have stood strong against exploitation and prejudice, on the side of the better angels.

We like to imagine, or I do, that the gross racial and religious and civil prejudices of the past are all behind us now. But the truth is they’re not. We still live in an age where far too much of what your present and your future will look like are based on who you are (or are not).

We still live in a country where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are notional rather than actual. The truth is that for millions of us, where you work, what you make, even what your prospects are, have been parceled out and predetermined without consent or apology.

The game is rigged.  It has always been, and the results don’t match the soaring rhetoric.

Everyone knows how much the nation’s service economy is dependent on the undocumented, for example. We know that the undocumented often get exploited, and we know they also often get blamed, in both cases for working for too little.

But now is the best opportunity we've had in years to literally put our money where our mouth is, to stand up and say this Declaration of Independence makes its promise to all who live and work here, not just the favored sons.

In the interest of full disclosure I will raise my hand now, because there is a bill called the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) under consideration as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

If passed it would permit permanent partners of U.S. citizens to obtain lawful permanent resident status for their foreign born LGBT partners. It’s estimated there are 36,000 same-sex bi-national couples that could benefit from this act.

Two weeks ago Senator John McCain scoffed at the idea of including it, saying UAFA’s presence or absence in the eventual deal was not “of paramount importance.”

Perhaps if his wife was denied a visa and forced to move to the U.K. for no other reason than to appease some bigots it would be of importance to him. In the meantime it’s just another example of some men being more equal than others.

The so-called group of eight bipartisan senators introduced their blueprint for CIR several weeks ago. It contained no provision for bi-national same-sex couples, despite the years long push among advocates to include UAFA.

This week I asked New York Senator Charles Schumer’s press office if he would strongly advocate for it, since it has not been included in the bill. I got a one-sentence reply: “Senator Schumer is a co-sponsor of UAFA and supports its inclusion in comprehensive immigration reform.”

But, significantly, Schumer has not yet put UAFA in the bill. So when I hear senators and House members insisting that “all men are created equal,” I won’t believe them until I finally see some proof.