I have taken a lot of pictures with American flags in them this summer — though most of them have a backdrop that adds a dash of irony. It is symbolic of my ambivalence about patriotism – as a word, a concept or a feeling. But last week, I had the chance to see that flag through the eyes of 49 brand new citizens when we were lucky enough to be invited to watch a naturalization ceremony in the Federal Courthouse – and there wasn’t a hint of irony in the entire event.
The judge began by reading out the list of countries these immigrants came from. “Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belgium, Botswana, Bulgaria, Cambodia, . . .” She asked the people to raise their hands when their home countries were named. “. . . China, Colombia, Congo, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Ghana, . . . “ She told them to hold their hands high and say “Here!” with pride. “. . . Guatemala, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Laos, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, . . .” Everyone smiled and greeted the people whose countries were just named. “. . . Peru, Somalia, Sudan, Taiwan, Turkey, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.” Some of them waved the little flags included in their citizenship packet as they smiled and loudly declared their presence.
Before they took the Oath of Allegiance, the judge told her own immigration story from Haiti – how she had lived for eight years without her parents as they built their lives in America to the point where they could bring their children over. She told us how she took the same pledge over 10 years later as a college student. She talked about the 49 different stories there in that room and then said to the new Americans:
“Tell us your stories. Celebrate your culture. Share your art and your music with us. Share your food! We like food! Be proud of where you came from and add your part of it to us.”
She also reminded them of the responsibilities that go along with citizenship –the first and foremost being voting. She pointed out that the League of Women Voters had a stand set up outside the courtroom where they could now register right away. She mentioned other ways they could make meaningful contributions to the country. And then they all stood up and recited the Oath.
Afterwards each one was individually congratulated as cameras flashed at huge smiles and quite a few tears. It was so obvious how important the day was to each and every one of them. I couldn’t help but feel that the country had just won 49 prizes. 49 patriots of the truest kind – people who didn’t take the freedoms this country offers for granted. Diverse people for whom patriotism was a complex concept and a new feeling – they would not be tossing the word around in a way that emptied it of all meaning.
On that same day in the evening, the A- and B-Teams of Republican presidential contenders had their turn in front of the cameras and almost all of them came wearing the obligatory flag pin. Throughout the debate “immigration” was equated with “protecting our borders” and universally identified as a major problem. We heard again how other countries send us their rejects and so “we need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly.” (Trump) How “immigration without assimilation is an invasion.” (Jindal) We heard a plan for “reducing the level of immigration by 25 percent.” (Santorum) and how “there are a million people a year who legally immigrate to the United States, and people feel like we’re being taken advantage of.” (Rubio) It seems what we need is a “legal immigration system that gives priority to American working families and wages” (Walker) and that giving “amnesty” to immigrants would “fundamentally change this country”. (Cruz)
There was not a single statement from any of them celebrating us as a nation of immigrants or acknowledging the contributions and enrichment so many foreign-born, naturalized citizens have brought to this country. I wonder – what do these men see and feel when they look at a flag? When they put on those pins?
Three days later, I took a ferry to Ellis Island in New York. There was an excellent exhibition there about the Immigrant Experience and the 12 million new Americans who came through that place over a period of about 50 years. I guess all of those people coming off those boats would be “illegal immigrants” by today’s standards. My great grandparents included.