Back in December, I had the honor of attending a naturalization ceremony. The ceremony is the final step in the long process of becoming a United States citizen. That morning, 74 new citizens were sworn in. They had come from 37 different countries and five continents. And all had driven through a snowstorm to downtown St. Paul; no one was missing, no one was late. The afternoon group was checking in as we were leaving. They do this, we’re told, about every three or four months.
Back in December, I had the honor of attending a naturalization ceremony. The ceremony is the final step in the long process of becoming a United States citizen.
That morning, 74 new citizens were sworn in. They had come from 37 different countries and five continents. And all had driven through a snowstorm to downtown St. Paul; no one was missing, no one was late. The afternoon group was checking in as we were leaving. They do this, we’re told, about every three or four months.
There were introductions and explanations of the process. There was even a video “welcome” from President Barack Obama. But the main event was a speech by Judge Gregory Kishel, Chief Judge of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Minnesota. His speech was an adaptation of his predecessor Judge Donovan Frank. It moved me so much that I asked Judge Kishel to email it to me so I can share it with you and, to my surprise, he did.
I had often wondered about one particular phrase in the oath taken by new citizens: “I give up and surrender any allegiance, to any king, queen, or prince, or to any state or country, which I have held, up until this day.” I’ve known so many who have immigrated to this country: people who loved their homelands but, for a number of reasons, mostly political or religious, wanted to live in the United States. Often I’ve thought, given the opportunity to live in three foreign countries, would I ever relinquish my U.S. citizenship to become a citizen elsewhere and, if so, under what circumstances.
Here’s what Judge Kishel said about that. (Frankly, I couldn’t say it any better.)
“You may be troubled by one part of the oath of allegiance you just took, where you renounced allegiance to any foreign state or sovereignty, including the nation of your birth. Since the United States became a nation over 237 years ago, we have required this of all new citizens.
“This change of your allegiance shows one important thing about the nature of our country. Until very recent times, many nations limited their citizenship to those of a particular national or ethnic group. We do not do that in the United States. We give no preference to those who grew up speaking a particular language, or those who profess a particular religion. We do not require allegiance to a particular king, queen, or royal family, and we never have. We become citizens of a republic, a union of individuals in freedom.
“And thus, we give our loyalty to a set of ideas. The United States was founded on these ideas. They include the limitation of government’s power by a written constitution; the protection of individual freedom by constitutional and legal guarantees; an open society in which anyone can speak with anyone else, in which anyone can worship in their choice or not, in which citizens may address and complain to and criticize their government without fear of punishment. When we honor our nation’s ideals and bring them to life, it enables all of us to keep for ourselves the results of our work. Just as importantly, it lets us make a safe and stable life for ourselves and our families.
“We require your allegiance to our republic to be exclusive, because those impersonal ideas have to live in all of us. We all have to bring them to life, every day. And all of us must be able to do so without fear that other citizens of the United States will betray our ideals and our country because they keep allegiance to another land.
“But let me assure you most strongly of all, this is only a political matter. It is a requirement to support and participate in your United States government, to comply with its laws and requirements, and to come forward in service to the United States if called.
“Your new allegiance to the United States is a matter of taking something new into your heart. But you need not give up your heartfelt love for the country where you were born, its history and its culture. You can still speak the language of your childhood, even as you use and learn our common English. And we encourage you to keep alive the memories, traditions, dress, and food you grew up with, even as you learn more of those of the United States, and adopt them for your own as well.
“You will be free to do all of these things. This freedom to follow the call of your soul in culture is treasured in the United States. Make the most of it without doubt or regret. You will become another part of the huge pattern of humanity that the United States has always been, in all its designs and colors and beauties. Our country has always become stronger from its diversity, even while our people remain united in its ideals. You will be part of that. Respect your own origins, and recognize the right of all here to cherish their own origins as well.”
For more than two centuries men and women have died for the freedoms we enjoy today. Not just some of them, or just for some people. All freedoms are there to be enjoyed by all citizens. Period.
As you enjoy your Fourth of July weekend, hopefully with family and friends, I encourage you to remember the freedoms you enjoy. These are the same that all citizens have a right to enjoy, even if they think or act or believe differently. Especially if they are different! That’s exactly the kind of country our forefathers and foremothers built, and died to protect.