In any given year, countless men, women and even children die in the hot, arid U.S.-Mexico border region while trying to sneak into this country. What drives so many to risk their lives just for the chance to live in this country? Indeed, why have so many been so eager to leave their homelands and their families for this country? Could there be something uniquely "American" that makes this country exceptional?
For many of us who are recent immigrants, or the children of immigrants, this question is particularly pressing. For starters, why did our families choose this country as the place we sought to make our fortune? After all, other wealthy countries around the world are looking for workers. Did we simply choose the U.S. because it was the most convenient?
No, convenience alone cannot be the reason. For example, millions of other immigrants before us braved the choppy Atlantic Ocean waters to come here. They understood there was something unique and different about this country -- something that promised them more than any other country of the old continent.
In stark contrast to the countries they left behind, this nation was founded on a set of ideas. Among these ideas: consent, equality and liberty.
At a time when most other countries were monarchies, theocracies or both, the United States struck a new course. This country was governed by "the consent of the governed." And as we proudly proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, "All men are created equal" and are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." These were revolutionary concepts in the 18th century.
And despite facing skeptics every step of the way, despite fighting a bloody Civil War and enduring a painful Great Depression, the United States emerged as the global superpower by mid-20th century. Our rise is remarkable, especially considering how quickly we were able to eclipse the same European powers that had scoffed at our "experiment in democracy."
What our European critics had failed to appreciate was how crucial liberty was in the making of not only our government, but all aspects of our country. Liberty in this country extends to freedom of religion and freedom of speech. This freedom also paved the way for a thriving free market in goods and services , providing opportunity to those willing to work hard for it.
For centuries, this foundation -- grounded in freedom -- has beckoned countless individuals from every corner of the planet to this country. As a result, whether we knew it or not, dreams of fortune were not the only things that called us to this country. We came also for the opportunity to succeed, and live in a country committed to advancing freedom, liberty and equality.
And although we haven't always been able to live up to these lofty ideals, America's overall commitment to them has seldom wavered.
As we look to the countries we left behind, we cannot help but notice the stark differences. Throughout Latin America, democracy is under attack. Additionally, free speech is being quashed by power-hungry caudillos willing to amend important democratic institutions to advance their selfish needs. Freedom, liberty and equality are being tested in Latin America as never before.
Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. And it isn't limited to Latin America. The promise of freedom and endless opportunity has been the magnet drawing countless people to this shore for centuries. It still rings true.
As immigrants (or children of immigrants) of this country, we must recognize that there are inherent elements that make this country exceptional. While we can always remain proud of our heritage and our ancestral homelands, we can -- and should -- be grateful to live in this country.
In appreciating the many liberties that we often take for granted, we can begin to understand why so many are willing to risk their lives every year just to be here.
Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in The Americano