Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Most American of Americans

Today I had a really awesome experience -- I got to be the keynote speaker at a naturalization ceremony!  One of my former students is an immigration attorney at Catholic Charities, and knowing that I had written about the presidency and the meaning of citizenship, she invited me to speak.  It was really amazing -- 71 candidates for citizenship from 36 different countries from Bosnia to Zambia.  It was so moving to see all these happy people -- a Chinese couple who had to be in their 80s, an older hispanic gentleman standing with two men who had to be his sons, a man who stood when his country of origin was named -- Ivory Coast -- and one remembers how it's tragically been in the headlines lately. 

And there was the appropriate pomp and circumstance:  a middle-school color guard so young as they solemnly presented the flag, the Star Spangled Banner mangled at the high notes by the crowd and America the Beautiful more easily belted out, the Pledge of Allegiance, short and to the point after the long and legally required Oath of Allegiance with references to potentates and mental reservations.  It actually made me all teary-eyed, which is pretty hard to do to cynical old me!

So anyway, this is what I said in my remarks:
Citizens, countrymen, my fellow Americans -- congratulations! Today, after years of hard work, study and waiting, you’ve earned the right to call yourselves Americans!

I’m honored to speak to you today. This naturalization ceremony is meaningful for me, too, for three reasons – my mother born in France and my two daughters born in China.

I was three years old when my mother became an American citizen. My mother came to the U.S. as an 18-year-old military bride following her husband to a new country far from family and all that was familiar. She brought with her customs and traditions from France – a Yule log at Christmas time, celebrating Bastille Day – that have enriched our lives, and she is a proud American.

I adopted my two children from China when they were babies. We have worked hard to keep their Chinese heritage a part of our lives in America – going to Chinese School each Saturday, celebrating Chinese New Year. That is not incompatible with being American, and they will tell you proudly today that they are Chinese American.

This ceremony today is a reminder for me of all they left behind, all that they have gained, and all that this COUNTRY has gained because they are here.

You, too, have left behind another country, another culture. But you bring to America history and traditions that enrich us all. What you bring to America is what makes America the strong and vital country that it is today. You bring new ideas, new ways of doing things. You bring a commitment to America’s future, having made a conscious choice to be Americans.

Have you been following the news about President Obama’s birth certificate? Some misguided people think he was born in Kenya instead of the United States. But the real question is why does it matter whether a president is a naturalized citizen from Kenya or a citizen by birth in America?

Because of a silly provision in the Constitution that requires the President to be a “natural born” citizen, a citizen by birth. That provision means that my mother and my children – and all of you – can’t be President of the United States.

Is it any wonder I call that a SILLY provision in the Constitution? [And that’s another wonderful thing about being an American, I can call the Constitution you just vowed to uphold “silly” without penalty!] It seems that the founding fathers thought being born in America makes you the most American of Americans. How SILLY!

I say naturalized Americans have a better claim to being the most American of Americans.

I was born in America. MY citizenship is just an accident of birth. You wanted to come to America. You wanted to become American. All I did was be born, not something I had much say in!

You had to study the Constitution. I had to be born.

You had to pass a test. I had to be born.

You had to take an oath of allegiance here today, absolutely and entirely renouncing and abjuring all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty. I was born.

You were investigated, interviewed, fingerprinted. Me? I was born.

You had to work and wait and suffer hardships I can only imagine to get where you are today. Again, just born.

All I did was be born. In comparison to your incredible journey, that seems like an awfully thin claim to American citizenship!

Seriously, though, the silliest thing of all is creating divisions between citizens. Regardless of how we got here, we’re all Americans now! And the United States Supreme Court has affirmed that naturalized citizens are not second class citizens. You are citizens, entitled to all the rights and protections that American citizenship provides.

One of my children’s favorite books is about a little boy adopted from Korea. He can’t wait for his naturalization ceremony where he will become an American, and, he’s sure, also get his “American” face. He thinks that he will become Caucasian when he becomes American.

Of course, he learns by the end of the book that his brown skin and Asian features are American! That the face of America is what’s reflected in this room. That regardless of race, ethnicity or national origin, we all belong to America. We are all Americans.

Congratulations to you, America’s newest citizens!
I speak in front of large groups -- my classes -- all the time, but I was jittery about this speech.  I so didn't want to screw up these people's special day by flubbing it.  I was thrilled by the number of new citizens who came up to thank me and say they appreciated what I had to say.  The man who told me I gave him "shivers" really made my day!

Actually, the whole experience made my day -- I think I've been smiling ever since, even through a long and contentious faculty meeting! So if you ever have a chance to attend a naturalization ceremony, grab that opportunity -- it will make you feel proud to be an American!


Anonymous said...

This is a great post and a great speech. Coincidentally, I attended my first Naturalization Ceremony last week--the same day as the Royal Wedding. It was amazing and moving. I had been so looking forward to the Royal Wedding (yes, I'm THAT corny), but it was nothing compared to the Naturalization Ceremony. The Naturalization Ceremony was so moving and made me feel very proud and happy that our country is a place where so many people from so many different places can find joy and prosperity. clf

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this, Malinda. It's a wonderful speech!

Livia said...

I was four and a half when I came to the U.S. and I still have memories of my naturalization ceremony. What a beautiful speech for anyone, no matter how they came to America, to hear on that day!