Editor’s Note: These remarks were delivered at a recent swearing-in ceremony for new citizens.
You’ve come a long way since you first got here. Whether you came on foot or by bus, or ship, or airplane, you arrived here as strangers — many of you didn’t know the language, some didn’t have any friends or family here, and all of you were at least a little bit nervous about starting a new life in a new country.
Back in the 1600s, when the first colonists came, new arrivals who survived the first year — and the diseases and insects and other rigors of the New World — were considered “seasoned,” and thus likely to survive and build a new life for themselves.
Although dangerous disease and insects aren’t the problems they once were, new immigrants still undergo a learning process, and have some awkward and embarrassing experiences before understanding how things are done here. My grandfather, for instance, came to this country as a teenager before World War I. He arrived in Boston, and a relative outside the city told him to go to the train station and take the first “car” — meaning the streetcar — to their town. But — and all of you will relate to this — his relative was already using English words in his Armenian, and used the English word “car,” meaning train car. Unfortunately, my grandfather didn’t know any English, and thought his relative had meant the Armenian word pronounced “car,” which means rock or stone. My grandfather somehow got to his relative’s house, knocked on the door, they answered, and he said “Hi, here’s the rock — what’s it for?”
The difficult adjustments that are unavoidable when moving to a new country are behind you now — you’ve learned how to find an apartment, file a tax return, open a bank account, enroll your children in school. You’ve lived here many years now and are comfortable with it. But until five minutes ago, you weren’t Americans. When you had breakfast this morning, you were British, Filipino, Ghanaian, or Bolivian — but you will have lunch as Americans. Not many countries in the world allow that kind of thing; an Irishman, after all, can’t move to China and become a Chinese; a Mexican become a Nigerian. And yet each of you, from whatever country, has become an American, as good as any other.
This matter of taking American citizenship, becoming part of the American people, is not like changing clothes or moving to a new apartment or getting a driver’s license. Instead, this is a permanent and very serious thing you do, akin to getting married or starting a family.
In the Jewish faith, a person who converts is believed to have been present in spirit at the presentation of the Ten Commandments by Moses 4,000 years ago, even though his ancestors were not physically there. In a non-religious version of this idea, once you take your oath of citizenship, you become present in spirit at the defining events of your new nation’s history:
The Indian immigrant who became an American this morning was present in spirit at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776, even though his own ancestors weren’t there and weren’t even in the country then;
The Salvadoran immigrant who became an American today was present in spirit at the Battle of Gettysburg, where our Union was saved in 1863, even though her own ancestors, like my own, weren’t there;
The Eritrean immigrant who became an American today was present in spirit when our flag was raised on Iwo Jima in 1945, even though his own ancestors weren’t there;
And the Russian immigrant who became an American today was present in spirit at Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, even though her own ancestors weren’t there.
You’ve now been adopted into America’s family. This family isn’t tied just by blood relations, but also by common ideals, a common language, a common history, and common culture of many parts — what President Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory.” That history is now your history, as well.
We welcome you as our newest countrymen. We entrust part of our nation’s future to you. We ask only that you love America, cherish her, honor her, protect her, embrace her, salute her, hold her dear. God bless you, and God bless America.