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U.S. Naturalization Ceremony
June 18, 2018
Good afternoon. This is an enormous honor for me to be here today and to address all of you. I’m deeply indebted to Mr. Zaragoza, Mr. Hall, Ms. Klobus, and everyone serving our country in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
I join everyone here in congratulating all of the brand-new U.S. citizens gathered in this room. Could we have one more round of applause for them?
I am in awe of you. To all of the refugees and asylees here today: Your bravery, your perseverance, your courage in the face of fear and persecution stand as a powerful testament to the will of the human spirit. It is a true honor to welcome you as full citizens of the United States.
To everyone granted citizenship today: You are the face of America. Because America has its history in people just like you. People seeking freedom. People seeking opportunity. People seeking a future better than their past. People who promise their children what every child deserves: safety, equality, and undimmed hope for the future.
You represent and enrich this country’s abundant diversity—the diversity of who we are, where we come from, what we believe, and what we hold dear. And so, just by having you as our neighbors and colleagues, our friends and loved ones, you make each of us—you make all of us—more American. You make this nation strong—strong not despite our diversity but because of it. You’ve given America a gift with your citizenship, and I thank you.
I am the son of two immigrants from Ukraine, both from shtetls—villages—outside Kiev. My parents fled religious persecution in their home country. They left Ukraine in the 1930s, years after tens of thousands of Jews were brutally massacred there, killed in massive pogroms intended to rid the country of my people.
My parents came separately to America, without knowing one another. They found each other years later in Chicago. They also found a close and loving community there, a community of their own, filled with people who sought refuge from tyranny and death in Eastern Europe.
My father ran a laundry. My mother was a seamstress. We didn’t have much money. But what we did have—what I had—was the American Dream.
We were a family of contradictions. My parents always spoke Yiddish in the house—to each other and to me. They kept a tight community of immigrant Jews around them. But they were American. I remember one night in the 1960s, we watched on TV as students protested U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. They were burning the American flag. My mother saw the flag in flames and turned to me, saying sadly in Yiddish, “I never had a better flag.”
What that flag represented to my parents was exactly what they gave to me: The American Dream. It was always within my reach. I had an education. I had opportunity. I had a vision of a better future, and I had the wherewithal to make it real. And among my generation in that close community of ours—that community of people exiled from Eastern Europe—there was always opportunity. My cousins and friends grew up to be doctors, lawyers, professionals.
When I think back on it today, I know how remarkable such a story is. And I know that it’s not true for everyone. I know that there are people in immigrant and refugee communities across the U.S. who have a very different story to tell.
And so, now that you are citizens of this country, I ask that you be a loving and welcoming community to those who will come after you. I ask that you help those who will struggle—and, of course, many will.
But I promise you that many of us—millions of us—will join you in this work. Because, together, we must ensure that those who come to this country have all the privileges of citizenship: high-quality health care, a good education, living-wage jobs, and the social supports that put the American Dream within reach.
We often say that the price of citizenship in America, the obligation of citizenship, is to be an active citizen—to cast your vote for those whose beliefs and values align with your own, to advocate for issues you care passionately about.
There is immense opportunity in this great nation of ours, but there is also tremendous need. And so I ask that you add to the price of your citizenship your care and compassion, your concern for the well-being of others, your service to your neighbors and your community. I ask that you strive to make those around you as happy and as proud and as hopeful as you are right now—in this very moment.
You have already proved your bravery, your grit, your steadfastness. Your long journey to this day is all the evidence we need of your courage and character. And so if there is anyone to take up this work of bringing light and hope to your fellow citizens, it is you. Because you are the American Dream. Thank you.