On October 11 had the privilege of speaking at the naturalization ceremony for 125 new citizens, Held at the United states District court for the District of Columbia, a short walk from the Capitol.
The ceremony was presided over by the honorable judge Tanya Chukka, herself a naturalized citizen originally from Jamaica. It drew a remarkable from Kazakhstan to Kenya, from Argentina to Australia, from Iraq to Italy.
There men and woman speak dozens of different language and have different faiths and different heritages. Each of their stories is singular and extraordinary. Bur their collective story is what makes America singular and extraordinary. I told them that there aren’t degrees of America-ness — that on that day, they were Americans, 100 percent, full stop. And that their story is the American Story.
In my remarks, I set out to explain what that means to me – and the responsibilities that come with citizenship.
Here’s an excerpt:
My family did’t come here on the Mayflower. Neither of my grandfather was bron in this country. Neither of them spoke English when they arrived by boat as young boys. Neither of them graduated from high school. But both of them started small businesses-as immigrants still are more likely than native-born Americans to do.
My father, a kid from Brooklyn, fought in World War II with young men from all over America who were the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves.
That is why for me, this ceremony – more than the swearing in of members of Congress, or of the Supreme Court or of the president of the United States- is the true ceremony of what it means to be American.
Unlike other nations, we are not a people formed by a common heritage, a common blood, a common religion. We’re united by an uncommon set of ideas: that all people are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights-life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That is what binds us together. That is what makes us Americans.
As wonderful as today is, your American story is just beginning. As Justice Brandeis said, by taking that oath you now occupy the highest office in the land, that of citizen.
Democracy is the state that requires more of you than any other; it is the one with the most responsibility. In an autocracy or a dictatorship, you don’t have to make choices, all the choices are made for you. Here, you determine your own destiny.
And that is where responsibility comes in. When Benjamin Franklin walked out of that hall in Philadelphia 229 years ago after the Constitution was signed, a woman asked him what had been created. A republic, madam, he said, if you can keep it.
If you can keep it. The way you keep it is to participate, to take responsibility, to be guides by those sacred ideas, To volunteer, to stay informed. What Franklin and the other founder worried about is that people would be deceived by demagogues and fooled by lairs, that they would be susceptible to rulers who abused their power, that they would lose touch with those core American ideas.
Here, as the Founder said, the people rule. That is the textbook definition of democracy . The first three words of the Constitution are “We the People.” Not we the government. Or we the elite. Or we the billionaires. It is We the people. It is by the power of we the people that the government has right. The government does not give us right, we the people give the government rights. That is part of what makes us exceptional.