Thank you so much, Judge Amon. And it’s just an extraordinary day, extraordinary to be with you here on such a special day in your lives.
Each of you has made a journey from the place of your birth to a position of great honor in this ceremony. There is no greater privilege for me than to be here with you today, celebrating your final day as visitors to this great country and your first moments as its newest citizens.
This morning, when you walked in those steps, you arrived here as Moroccans and Mexicans and Kuwaitis and Kirgiz, Argentinians and Albanians. As we look around the room, we see people of all ages and descriptions—people from countries as large as China, as small as Grenada, as near as Canada, as distant as Uzbekistan and Vietnam. If we were to recite each of your names—with their distinctive regional signatures—we would be traveling on a linguistic global odyssey.
And the miracle is that, because of the oath you have just taken, each of those names now belongs to an American. Each of your names is now an American name.
As I walked into the courthouse this morning, I remember entering this very same Brooklyn courthouse myself as an Irish citizen, as the judge described, knowing that I would walk out as an American.
In 1979, when I was nine, I emigrated here from my native Ireland. Our plane landed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in what I then thought must have been the largest airport in the history of the world. I don’t remember much about that day, but I remember what I was wearing. I was wearing a t-shirt with the stars and stripes in red, white and blue. I was wearing a t-shirt with the American flag.
In the first months after my arrival, I was happy to be in America, but I was also wary. I wasn’t sure whether I could fit in. I had the advantage of speaking the same language as people in this country but I had a thick Dublin accent and I worried that I would be a stranger in this new land.
When the time came for me to apply to become a citizen in 1993, I learned about the test that I would have to pass that included a series of questions about American politics and American history. And I confess that I was completely terrified. I studied very hard, as I’m sure many of you did as well. We’ve all taken tests before in our lives, but this test spelled the difference between becoming an American and remaining on the outside looking in. It’s no wonder that what I remember most about the day I came for my test and my interview is all of the people sitting in the waiting room, anxiously quizzing one other, striving to do their very best. This was our shot and none of us wanted to miss the chance.
Long before I came to this courthouse, I had the sense that becoming an American was very important. It was clear from the look of determination that I saw in my mother’s eyes when she got us on the airplane and took us out of Ireland and told us we were moving to America. I understood from early on that America was a land of freedom and tremendous opportunity. This was a place where everybody could choose what they wanted to be.
For me, this is a country that gave me the chance from landing in that big Pittsburgh airport and rehearsing my American accent, trying to drop my Dublin accent so I could sound like everyone else, to, today, representing the United States at the United Nations. Every day I go to work, I get to sit in front of the placard that says “United States of America,” representing this great country.
To be an American is to be empowered with the freedom to create who you are and who you want to be. And to be an American means also that you can also change your mind along the way. Here, you get to ask and answer the most fundamental questions about what you value, what you believe, who you pray to, and who you want to love.
For you, this day marks both a personal milestone and the birth of a new set of responsibilities. As citizens, we each have a duty to participate in, and to strengthen, the democratic foundation on which this country is based. You will vote for our leaders. You will sit on our juries. By contributing to your communities, you will help us become a more perfect nation. And a fairer one.
As each of us pursues our own individual dreams, we add in a small but vital way to the larger American Dream. We know, because we see the evidence all around us, that the richness and resilience of this country is precisely because of people like you. This country was founded, built and has been sustained largely by the hands of immigrants. We are a strong country because we are an open and diverse one. Those of us who work for President Obama have no greater responsibility than to keep America and Americans safe. Your citizenship today makes this country safer and stronger because you bring with you diverse ideas and passion, history and experience, energy and commitment and conviction. As you raised your right hand this morning to take the oath of citizenship and accepted the benefits of American citizenship, you also offered your wisdom to this community, to your new country, to America. And we are grateful for it, and we are definitely better for it.
While the ancestral roots of America’s population extend to every corner of the Earth, as we know, this reality has been a source of discomfort to some. Historically, there have always been groups of Americans—themselves the descendants of immigrants—who have sought to close the doors to others seeking the same path.
This tension remains even today, in 2013, a source of controversy. President Obama, as you know, has said repeatedly that our immigration system is broken, with 11 million people living in the shadows, where they are vulnerable to exploitation and have no way of getting on the right side of the law. But increasingly, in part because they have heard your voices, members of the Republican and Democratic parties, business leaders, and representatives of the faith community have recognized the urgent need for comprehensive commonsense immigration reform; to build an immigration system that will reunite families, grow our economy, be more consistent with our ideals, strengthen the security of our borders, and that will include a path to earned citizenship for millions who are denied that opportunity today. Legislation to achieve these goals has been approved by the Senate on a bipartisan basis and we are doing everything we can to ensure it comes up before the U.S. House of Representatives and becomes law.
Shortly before he became America’s first president, George Washington expressed his hope that the United States “would become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nations they might belong.”
In that spirit, men and women have been coming to this land in search of economic opportunity, but also to find a place where they and their families can live and grow in freedom, a place where the rights of all are respected and everyone is equal in the eyes of the law.
That kind of America—the best America—the America of refuge for many and opportunity for all—is what attracts immigrants to our shores. It’s what enables hardworking men and women to stay and build businesses, become doctors and teachers, artists, firefighters, and craftspeople. It’s what helps our economy to grow and our communities to be strong.
Preserving that kind of America is the challenge that unites us—whether we have lived here all our lives or acquired the title of citizen in the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn on December 4, 2013.
I mentioned earlier that, when I arrived in the United States at the age of nine, I was wearing this goofy red, white, and blue t-shirt. Even then, I knew that the American flag was a symbol of freedom. What I have figured out since is that, to make good on the promise that our nation affords, we Americans—we, Americans—don’t actually have to go around wearing the flag. All we are required to do is to honor and live up to the ideals for which that star-spangled banner stands. Today, of all days, that is a duty we take seriously and a test we are determined and incredibly proud to meet.
In closing, I want to thank you again for allowing me to be with you on this very, very special day that you will never forget. And let me be the first to say, my fellow Americans, congratulations and best wishes to all of you.
This site is managed by U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City and the Bureau of Public Affairs in Washington, DC. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein.