Welcome New Americans

By Mark Krikorian on July 3, 2002

National Review Online, July 3, 2002

Thousands of you are becoming American citizens on this Independence Day. Some will have made the decision to fully embrace America out of patriotic feeling in the wake of September 11. Others were uncomfortable with the insecurity of not being full members of the nation at a time of greater national solidarity. Most of you probably have felt both.

You've come a long way since first arriving on these shores. Whether you came by foot, bus, ship, or plane, you arrived here as strangers, most likely unfamiliar with our language, with few friends or relatives, anxiously embarking on a new course in a faraway country.

In the 1600s, new arrivals to America underwent a process called "seasoning"; colonists who lived through the first year - and the diseases and insects and other rigors of the New World - were considered "seasoned," and thus likely to survive and build a new life for themselves.

Although dangerous disease and insects are not the problems they once were, new immigrants still undergo a kind of seasoning when they first arrive, and in the process have some awkward and embarrassing experiences before learning how things are done here. My grandfather, for instance, came to this country as a teenager before World War I. He arrived in Boston, and a relative outside the city told him to go to the train station and take the first "car" to the town of Reading; this relative was already using English words while speaking Armenian, and used the English word "car," meaning train car. Unfortunately, my grandfather didn't know any English, and thought his relative had meant the Armenian word pronounced "car," which means rock or stone. My grandfather somehow found the train to Reading, and arrived at his relative's house with a rock in his hands, asking why they asked him to bring it.

The difficult adjustments that are unavoidable when moving to a new country are behind you now - you've learned how to file a tax return, open a bank account, enroll your children in school. But until today, you have not been Americans, however comfortable you've become living here. You began this day as Bosnians, Filipinos, Somalis, or Dominicans - but you will end it as Americans. Few countries in the world allow such a thing - an Irishman, after all, can't become a Chinese, nor can a Mexican become a Nigerian. And yet each of you, from whatever country, are becoming an American.

This matter of taking American citizenship, becoming part of the American people, is not like getting a driver's license or changing apartments or putting on a new suit of clothes. Instead, this is a permanent and very serious thing you do, akin to getting married or adopting a new religion.

In the Jewish faith, a person who converts is believed to have been present in spirit at the presentation of the Ten Commandments by Moses at Mount Sinai 4,000 years ago, even though his ancestors were not physically there. In a secular counterpart to this idea, as you take your oath of citizenship, you are present in spirit at the defining events of your new nation's history:

  • The Sri Lankan doctor who becomes an American this week was present in spirit at the signing of the Declaration of Independence 226 years ago today;

  • The Salvadoran gardener who becomes an American this week was present in spirit at the Battle of Gettysburg, where our nation's fate was decided in 1863;

  • The Ethiopian taxi driver who becomes an American this week was present in spirit when our flag was raised on Iwo Jima in 1945.

And, of course, we were all present last year when New York's firemen sacrificed their lives to save their countrymen in the World Trade Center. The atrocities of last year did not change our nation so much as reaffirm our duty to our fellow citizens. Americans are bound together as a family, united not by blood ties, but by common ideals, common language, common history - what President Abraham Lincoln called the "mystic chords of memory." That common history is now yours.

We welcome you as our newest countrymen. We entrust part of our nation's future to you. We ask only that you cherish America, love her, honor her, protect her, embrace her, salute her, hold her dear. God bless you, and God bless America.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.