World Refugee Day Naturalization Ceremony

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Ben Franklin Room, U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC
June 21, 2012

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Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be with you all on this special occasion as we commemorate World Refugee Day. Let me first give my most heartfelt congratulations to the individuals sitting on the front row here today -- and their families -- for crossing this important milestone. It is truly a humbling honor to be here with you this afternoon.

I want to thank Deputy Secretary Burns, Assistant Secretary Ann Richard, Deputy Secretary Jane Lute, the bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), and all of the wonderful colleagues who made this ceremony possible.

I also want to thank U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), led by Director Alejandro Mayorkas for their work in helping men and women realize their dreams of citizenship.

And finally, let me acknowledge Khaled Hosseini, a fellow "American by choice" and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Envoy. A privilege to be with you, sir.

Every minute, eight people are forced to flee their homes due to war or persecution. Not one of those eight people spends one minute wanting to be a refugee. It is a not a choice one wants to make. But in 2011, record numbers of newly displaced refugees fled their home countries, with those forced into displacement reaching 42 million.

Just last week, I visited refugee camps in Thailand where I met with refugees who had fled persecution and insecurity in Burma. I’ve also met with refugees in Iraq, Kenya, Pakistan, and many other countries -- including here in the United States, where we want to ensure that every refugee who arrives is given the resources and support they need to make a new life.

Today we welcome a special group of new Americans, including: a Marine (thank you for your service), a set of three siblings, a husband and wife, and several who have been permanent residents for a very long time (33 years in one case) and are now becoming American citizens. 

Some would call what you are doing "naturalizing" -- but as a "naturalized" citizen myself, I have to say that I am not a fan of this language. None of us was an alien before, and none of us is more "natural" today than when we were not American citizens. So, I’d like to take this opportunity, in front of my distinguished colleagues -- Deputy Burns and Deputy Lute -- to table a proposal: let’s change the language! Little did you know that I had an agenda today…!

In all seriousness, it is indeed a humbling experience to receive this award today. Though I was 12 when my parents moved to the United States, I became an American citizen in 1979 -- and it was a conscious choice then as has been every day since.

Like all of you, I choose every day to live by the values of this great country. Values like compassion, inclusion, equality, and integrity. It has been a tremendous honor to be able to serve my country as the highest ranking Latina in the history of the State Department, and to witness firsthand how the United States is helping build a world in which all members of society -- no matter where they are in the world -- are treated with these values.

Our principles, our heritage, do not allow us to shirk our responsibility as a humanitarian leader. We have an obligation to the United States’ history and national identity to continue welcoming new Americans into our society, especially those fleeing adversity. It is in our DNA to do so.

The reality is that the United States has always been a melting pot of languages and customs. Ours is a country of many colors, traditions, and religions. We are made stronger as a nation by the many histories and journeys among us.

Today, we celebrate your journey. It has undoubtedly been a long road to this new citizenship, but today, we commend you. Your communities and your new country await the contributions and talents you bring with you -- and your children’s contributions and talents, too.

So, congratulations. I share with you this award in being an American by choice. May we all live up to the dignity and responsibility of our chosen citizenship.