Mr. President, I Wish You'd Been There

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tags: citizenship, immigration, Trump

James D. Nealon was U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 2014 to 2017, and Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security from 2017 to 2018.  He is a Wilson Center Global Fellow.

On Thursday I was honored to speak to 23 new American citizens, at a naturalization ceremony aboard "Old Ironsides" in Boston Harbor, as they swore allegiance to the United States of America.  As the son and grandson of immigrants, you would have appreciated the drive, determination and ambition of these new Americans.  Like you and your family, they will be an engine of growth and prosperity and within a generation their families will be indistinguishable from those that have been here for 300 years.

Of course, "Old Ironsides" is the U.S.S. Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, and named for the sacred document that these new Americans had just sworn to defend and uphold.  

I was invited by Rya Zobel, a federal judge from Boston who presided over the ceremony and administered the oath to our new fellow citizens.  Judge Zobel began her remarks by addressing the new citizens as "Fellow Immigrants" – she came to the United States as a refugee following World War II.  She spoke little English at the time, and didn't know much about life in America.  But like so many immigrants before and after - like your own family, Mr. President - she worked very hard to make the most of the opportunities she now enjoyed.  She graduated from Radcliffe, then Harvard Law School, and went to work as an attorney in private practice.  In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, where she has worked ever since, and distinguished herself for fairness and decency.

As I listened to Judge Zobel welcome these new Americans, and exhort them to vote and participate in our democracy, I thought also about my own family's path to citizenship.  My great grandfather arrived in the same Boston Harbor where I now sat aboard the Constitution, and went to work as a shoemaker in Charlestown, not half a mile from where "Old Ironsides" is moored.  His son, my grandfather, got some education and became a foreman in a machine shop.  His son, my father, was a surveyor who started his own business and did very well.  His son - me - was able to attend university and became a United States Ambassador.  

As our new fellow citizens came forward to receive their certificates of citizenship, I wondered if such a steady path of upward mobility – the American dream – would be possible for any of them back home.  Probably not.  That's why they're here.  They're here to work and to educate their children, in the hope that their children and grandchildren will have access to the same American dream that has benefited us, and which has especially blessed your own family, Mr. President. 

Five of these new citizens who took the oath were in uniform.  Four were members of the United States Army and the fifth was a sailor, a member of the crew of the Constitution.  His shipmates let out a mighty roar when his name was called, and his Captain, sitting next to me, grinned from ear to ear.  There was no prouder person on earth than that young sailor, unless it was his mother, sitting behind him.

Mr. President, as the son and grandson of immigrants, who is married to an immigrant, I think you would have been just as moved as I was by the ceremony.  These 23 new citizens weren't born Americans.  They became Americans by choice.  To work, to raise and educate their children, and to perpetuate the fundamental precept of the American experience – the American dream.  I suggest you start hosting naturalization ceremonies in the White House.  Then you'll know what the rest of us have known for over 200 years:  That immigrants bring us their vibrancy, innovation and sweat equity, are one of the great engines of our prosperity, and all they want in return is opportunity.  That, Mr. President, is what separates us from almost every other country in the world.

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