Reflections on “Responsibilities of Citizenship for Immigrants and our Daughter”

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Eighteen years ago, on Friday, September 7th, 2001, I was honored to be asked to participate in a naturalization ceremony for 46 new citizens of the United States in a courtroom of Judge Alvin Thompson in Hartford, Connecticut. I published those remarks on a website that has long since gone dormant. In light of the politics of the day, I was thinking back to that ceremony and what it meant to me to participate. I regret the corny reference to Star Trek, but I regret nothing else I said on that day. I titled the remarks “Responsibilities of Citizenship for Immigrants and our Daughter”.

Good afternoon. I’m honored to be here as you take your final step to become a citizen of the United States of America. My wife Celeste, who will soon give birth to another new American citizen, is here to celebrate this joyous occasion with you. And if you’ll pardon the musings of a proud soon-to-be father, I would like to share some thoughts about citizenship inspired by this ceremony and the impending arrival of our first child.

Our daughter will be a citizen by birth, but you have made a choice to become an American. This choice may or may not have been easy for you, but I have the utmost respect for you for making that choice.

I don’t know what compelled you to submit yourself to the naturalization process – perhaps economic, political, social, or religious reasons. I have to think that you did it to better your life and the lives of your family. But you should know that the process does not stop here.

Along with the rights of citizenship come the responsibilities expected of you. Perhaps you are more aware of these responsibilities than I given your choice to become a citizen, but please allow me to enumerate some of them. Exercise your right to be heard on matters of concern to you. Vote in every election that you can. When asked to do so, eagerly perform your duty as a member of a jury. Watch what is happening around you, and form your own opinions. Practice your religion and respect the right of others to do the same. These are the values we will try to instill in our daughter; I hope you take them to heart, instill them in your family members, and inspire your fellow citizens to do the same.

But as you take this final, formal step of citizenship, be aware that becoming an American does not mean you have to leave your native culture behind. A part of American culture is the 1960’s show Star Trek, which promoted the concept of IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. In that futuristic world, diverse cultures and ideas are respected with the realization that society is stronger because of them. While we cannot claim to have reached that ideal world, one can say that the American Dream is best realized when our diversity is celebrated and shared by the members of this country. My daughter will be the celebration of that diversity: the product of Irish, German, Polish, and English immigrants. By adding your own history and experiences to the fabric of our country, you make America stronger. In addition to all of the formal responsibilities asked of you as a new citizen, I charge you to share with your fellow citizens that which makes you unique.

Our past honored citizens fought hard to make this country what it is today. As they showed courage, we too must be prepared to show courage. As they endured pain, we too must be prepared to make sacrifices for the good of our nation. Like them, we too must strive for liberty and justice for all. As Americans, we are all filled with these hopes and dreams.

On behalf of my wife and our daughter soon to be born, and my parents, brother, and sister, Celeste’s parents, two sisters and their families, and on behalf of the people of Hartford, the State of Connecticut, and the citizens of all 50 states, I congratulate you on your new role as citizens of the United States of America. Please use the power that is now vested in you to advance the cause of hope and opportunity and diversity. I invite you to be active participants in the next chapter of America’s history of progress toward the goals of freedom and equality for all.

Four days later—September 11, 2001—the trajectory of the lives of the people in that courtroom would change. We couldn’t know how much they would change. We still don’t know how much they will change.

To these newly naturalized citizens, I spoke of beliefs that I thought were universally American. They were the beliefs that I grew up with…that were infused in me by my parents and the communities I lived in.

Did I grow up in a bubble? Have there always been fellow citizens around me that wanted to block other people from coming to this country and throw out anyone that didn’t look like them? Were there always cruel agents of the government that thought it reasonable to lock fellow humans in cages, to separate children from caregiving adults, to single out people of another race for extraordinary scrutiny, and seem to find joy in doing so?

I’m now struggling with these questions. I’m struggling to understand how the election of a person to lead our country has been the focusing lens for division. (Trump? Obama?) I struggle to comprehend the toxic mix of willful ignorance and arrogance of cultures has come to shape the way we look at each other, the way we hear each other, and the way we speak to each other. I want to believe there are common threads of humanity weaving around and between citizens and visitors of America—threads that bind us tight enough to work towards shared purposes and loose enough to allow for individual character.

I speak and I listen. I struggle and I believe. I have to…for my daughter, her brother that followed, and for the 46 new citizens I welcomed 18 years ago.