Friday, March 17, 2006

Building America One Naturalization Ceremony at a Time...

I'm not a humanitarian, I'm a hellraiser.
- Mother (Mary) Jones, American Activist and Irish Immigrant (1837-1930)

Hold my hand Black Mother, hold,
I need to rise, I need to stand on my feet
To rise, to stand, and to accuse.

- Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin, "Hold My Hand"
Ethiopian Poet Laureate (1936-2006)

Who are they, as bats and night-dogs, askant in the Capitol?
What a filthy Presidentiad! (O south, your torrid suns! O north, your arctic freezings!)
Are those really Congressmen? are those the great Judges? is that the President?

- Walt Whitman, "To The States" U.S. Poet and Writer (1819-1892)

One of my best friends, Mesi, became a U.S. citizen two weeks ago. Not thinking a big deal, she waited a while to tell me that she had gone through the naturalization ceremony.

I cried hearing her story. No point in lying about it.

She shook the hand of a judge who extolled the importance of remembering that the majority of Americans come from somewhere else. Smiling old women, volunteers from some civic organization, served cookies and punch. And, per tradition, she was given a small American flag to welcome her into one of the world's most celebrated clubs - the American Citizenry.

The very face of the United States changes every time an immigrant joins that American club. And that is a wonderous thing.

I welcome immigrants because with a healthy influx of new people comes a wealth of new ideas and cultural influence. My friend now not only has the same rights and freedoms I've enjoyed since birth, she also brings with her the gift of her native Ethiopia's culture.

She brings with her everything from family recipes to beautiful literary traditions. She brings language and art, knowledge and beauty. And she is nowhere near being the only African coming to these shores bearing sacred gifts.

According to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, roughly a half a million people have become citizens each year since 1995. Between 2000 and 2004, more than 100,000 Africans were naturalized. In 2004 alone, more than 4,000 of Mesi's fellow Ethiopian ex-pats joined the ranks of Joe Sixpack.

To me, there's nothing more beautiful than someone wanting to become a citizen of my country, despite all of our very public bickering, violent crime rate, our political insanity, and our tarnished role as the world's bastion of freedom.

For all the anti-immigrant paranoia of the cultural isolationists, for all the knee-jerk policies of the current government and public opinion, people still come. They come from cities like Lagos and Hong Kong, Addis Ababa and Islamabad. They uproot themselves from the social comforts of their mother countries and move to a strange land in pursuit of their dreams.

Mesi told me that one Turkish woman said she'd been waiting 40 years for the day she could become an American citizen. Many Americans I know, those fortunate enough to be born in this country, get upset if they have to wait 40 minutes for a table at restaurant.

A reminder, I guess, that the rights most citizens take for granted daily are well worth the wait to those who've never known such freedoms. A reminder, too, that despite our Patriot Acts and our Abu Gharibs, despite our willingness to elect a war-mad ruling party and a spineless opposition, people still see the United States as a land where there is still hope.

The hope of immigrants is what built America. The idealism that they brought with them, their belief in the magical landmass that separates the Atlantic from the Pacific, is what has turned dreams into reality, ideas into invention and innovation, for more than two centuries.

It is an honor to welcome in my new countrymen, not as refugees from some foreign place but as living, breathing representations of what the United States was meant to be, what it is at its finest. I look forward to calling them my fellow Americans at our cafes and grocery stores, in classrooms and polling booths, on street corners and at parties.

I look forward to helping them build a better future for the lot of us.

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shayna said...

Beautiful story! :)

The ZenFo Pro said...

Thanks! Nice to see you posting about Eugene again, BTW!