Remarks at Naturalization Ceremony

Richard Stengel
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse
Washington, DC
October 11, 2016

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you Judge Chutkan.  I am deeply honored to be here. This is an enormous privilege.

There are 125 of you from 51 countries and four continents.  You come from Kazakhstan to Kenya, from Argentina to Australia, from Iraq to Italy.  You speak dozens of different languages and have different faiths and different heritages.  Many of you have experienced great hardship and struggle. None of your journeys to be here today are the same, but today, you are united in that you are all Americans.

Each of your stories is singular and extraordinary.  But your collective story is what makes America singular and extraordinary.  Your story is the American story.  Every single one of us -- at some point -- came from somewhere else.

You are just as American as those whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower -- after all, they were immigrants too.  There are not degrees of American-ness -- today, you are an American, 100%, full-stop.  Indeed, in so many ways, the newest Americans are the truest Americans.

I will explain.

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My family didn't come here on the Mayflower. Neither of my grandfathers was born in this country. Neither of them spoke English when they arrived by boat as young boys. Neither of them graduated from high school. But both of them started small businesses – as immigrants still are more likely to do. My father, a kid from Brooklyn, fought in World War II with young men from all over America who were the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves.

That is why for me, this ceremony -- more than the swearing in of members of Congress, or of the Supreme Court or of the President of the United States -- is the true ceremony of what it means to be American. It is the essence of American-ness.

Because you are Americans by choice, not by accident of birth. And here is why that is important.

Unlike other nations, we are not a people formed by a common heritage, a common blood, a common religion. We're united by an uncommon set of ideas: that all people are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We are united by fidelity to those ideas. That is what binds us together. That is what makes us Americans.

One of my favorite lines about America is from Bono, the Irish rocker. He said, "I love America because America is not just a country it's an idea."

America is not just a country, it's an idea.

You cannot be born into an idea. You have to believe in it. You cannot live in an idea, but you can live by it. By choosing to become American, you are choosing to believe in and act on those ideas. There is nothing more American than that.

What matters is not where you came from, what color you are, what religion you worship, who your parents are – what matters is that you embrace these core ideas of what defines us – and now you – as Americans.

So, when you pledged allegiance today, it was not to a flag, or to the government, or to a leader, but to these ideas -- the ideas of freedom and equality and due process and diversity and tolerance.

But it’s more than just a pledge. It’s not that simple. As wonderful as today is, your American story is just beginning. Living in a democracy is not easy. As Justice Brandeis said, by taking that oath you now occupy the highest office in the land, that of citizen.

Democracy is the state that requires more of you than any other; it is the one with the most responsibility. In an autocracy or a dictatorship, you don't have to make choices, all the choices are made for you. Here, you determine your own destiny.

And that is where responsibility comes in. Because democracies, or republics, as the Founders called it, do not go of themselves. When Benjamin Franklin walked out of that hall in Philadelphia 229 years ago after the Constitution was signed, a woman asked him what had been created? A republic, madam, he said, if you can keep it.

If you can keep it. The way you keep it is to participate, to take responsibility, to be guided by those sacred ideas. To volunteer, to go to PTA meetings, to stay informed. What Franklin and the other founders worried about is that people would be deceived by demagogues and fooled by liars, that they would be susceptible to rulers who abused their power, that they would lose touch with those core American ideas.

Here, as the Founders said, the people rule. That is the textbook definition of democracy. The first three words of the Constitution are, "We the People." Not we the government. Or we the elite. Or we the billionaires. It is, We the People. It is by the power of we the people that the government has rights. The government does not give us rights, we the people give the government rights. That is the American idea and part of what makes us exceptional.

Please do not lose touch with those idea or fall prey to those who abuse them.

Sometimes politicians and leaders divide American into us and them -- and forget that all of us were once them.

We have a history of pulling up the ladder behind us. Irish need not apply. Jews unwelcome. Japanese internment camps. The targeting of Mexican immigrants. And, of course, there is America’s original sin of slavery – Africans who were involuntary immigrants. Our history has not always been pretty, and we hear echoes of that history again today. Yes, that anti-immigrant rhetoric represents the ideas of some Americans, but they are not American ideas. We cannot succumb to that. We are better than that. We must always strive to help the next generation of immigrants and refugees come up that ladder.

One thing you can always count in America is that we hang a lantern on our problems – we have many flaws, but we shine a light on them and try to perfect this union, together.

America won six Nobel prizes last week, more than any other nation. All six were won by immigrants to these shores.

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When I was growing up, the symbol of immigration was the melting pot. People wanted to assimilate. Lose their accents. Cook American food. Wear blue jeans and t-shirts. After all, our national motto is ‘e pluribus unum’ – Out of many, one.

But today, I think, the model is more of a patchwork quilt, where you don’t have to let go of your traditions or heritage, but incorporate them into your citizenship. There is no conflict between being American and being from wherever you are – you are the newest Americans. Everyone is a mixture of old and new.

Immigrants and refugees enrich and enlarge America. They renew and refresh the American experience. That is our DNA as a country. We can never forget that.

That is why, the newest Americans are the truest Americans.  You are not symbols of the American Dream.  You are the American Dream itself.  You are what makes America great.  That is why I’m so honored to be with you today.