THIS week, 28 people became U.S. citizens at the federal courthouse in Toledo. Before that, they were “immigrants” — people from somewhere else.
Congress is engaged in an important debate, which it sometimes trivializes, about how this nation should treat people from somewhere else, and what it should require of them. The people who became citizens in Toledo were required to do a great deal.
They had to pass rigorous tests that many native-born Americans would fail. They had to show they could stand on their own feet economically. They had to swear their allegiance not just to a flag, but to the Constitution, which commits these new citizens to the rule of law, due process of law, and equal protection under the law, as well as freedom of speech, thought, and worship.
Might these new recruits appreciate our blessings more acutely than those of us who were born with them?
Every July 4, there is a large naturalization ceremony like the one held here this week at Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, Va. It is a festive, yet deeply moving, ceremony. There is a brass band. Some of the new citizens speak.
And there is usually a main speaker — someone of note. Some of the past speakers include Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Carl Sagan, Gerald Ford, and Robert Goizueta, a Cuban immigrant who became head of Coca-Cola.
One year, the speaker was the writer Frank McCourt, who said: “The history of my family is resurrected for me from time to time when I go to a place in New York called Ellis Island. I’ve been there 11 times, and every time I go there, I go to what’s called the Great Hall.
“When you go into the Great Hall, you see a great mound of bags and trunks … that people carried their possessions in. It’s a mountain of history. Then you go around Ellis Island, and you see things that people left. You see prayer books and Rosary beads and clothing of all kinds, shoes, baby shoes — all kinds of what they call artifacts, testifying to the kind of immigration that we’ve experienced.
“When you think of it,” he said, “it isn’t the unity, it’s the diversity of this country that makes us so strong.”