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Remembering the Rock: How Senator Kennedy Helped 200,000 People Fall in Love

by Frank Sharry on 08/26/2009 at 12:54pm

Senator Kennedy was our Hero, our Leader — and our Rock. 

For over four decades, he was a towering figure in the ongoing struggle to make our immigration and refugee policies consistent with America’s finest ideals. What you may not know, however, is that he helped 200,000 of us fall more deeply in love. I’ll get to that.

First things first. With his impressive record on healthcare reform, it’s easy to forget that Kennedy cut his teeth first on immigration.  He began his first race for the Senate with a call for immigration reform in 1962 and has been fighting for a more inclusive America ever since. Senator Kennedy fashioned our modern-day legal system of immigration. He created humane refugee and asylum policies. And he set the stage for a 21st century solution to the problem of illegal immigration. These are no small feats.

With his 1965 immigration legislation, Senator Kennedy made sure families were reunited without regard to race, religion, or national origin.  With his 1980 Refugee Act, he made sure refugees were protected– whether stranded in overseas camps, or seeking asylum on our shores.  In recent years, Sen. Kennedy has fought tirelessly for the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that would extend rights and responsibilities to the 12 million immigrant workers and family members living in our nation without legal protection.

As he was quoted in USA Today:

“From the windows of my office in Boston … I can see the Golden Stairs from Boston Harbor where all eight of my great-grandparents set foot on this great land for the first time,” Kennedy told Senate colleagues in a 2007 speech. “That immigrant spirit of limitless possibility animates America even today.”

For those of us who have had the honor of seeing him work up close, we will remember the man, and not just the persona. 

Unlike many politicians, the closer you got to Senator Kennedy, the more you loved and admired him.  His humanity, humility and generosity were infectious– and inspiring. He seemed to understand that he was but a vehicle for the larger causes for which he tirelessly fought.  While so many in politics focus on using policy fights to win power for themselves, Senator Kennedy focused on using power to win good policy for the vulnerable. 

Unfortunately, our Rock did not live to see comprehensive immigration reform– with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants– enacted into law. But thanks to him, passage of such a bill is no longer a  matter of  “if” but of “when.”  He won’t be physically present at the signing ceremony, but on that day he will undoubtedly be the strongest presence in the room.

I know that for me, when immigration reform gets signed into law, I will think back on an electric Rock moment during the spring of 2006.

Senator Kennedy came to speak at a rally of Latino immigrants on the Washington mall.  Standing at the podium, his love for the 200,000 people in front of him was matched only by their love for him. With the crowd waving American flags, and the Senator speaking in that ever-louder roar of his, he bellowed:

Do you love your family? 

The crowd yelled,

YES!

He then roared:

Do you love your community?

The crowd responded with an even louder:

YES!!

He then bellowed:

Do you love America?

The crowd’s roar reached a fever pitch as they responded with their loudest:

YES!!!

At that moment, some two hundred thousand people– myself included– fell more deeply in love with America.

It is our duty to carry on the fight, and realize the vision of America that Senator Kennedy showed us was possible.

I’ll leave you with a parting video of the Senator, our Rock, speaking in Washington:

Note: Cross-posted on Huffington Post.

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