Last Thursday I had the opportunity to attend and observe the naturalization ceremony for U.S. citizenship of an extended family member at the Miami convention center. If you’ve never seen a photo of a person having successfully jumped the old Berlin Wall or a Cuban refugee struggling up the beach at Key West, then I would submit that the looks on the faces of most of those being naturalized was pretty close. The placidity and sublimeness of a person that sees basic human freedoms and opportunity within his or her grasp is delicious to the eyes.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service put together an altogether moving and inspirational program for the sea of shining faces that made up the new additions to our uniquely American tapestry called the United States. I felt a great sense of pride and kinship as I witnessed the electric atmosphere that engulfed the thousands of on-looking friends and family members of the inductees as they each raised a right hand to reject past allegiance to foreign princes, potentates and states forced upon them by the unlucky virtue of a birth in foreign lands. These same lands, often dominated by oppressive dictators or regimes, decayed economic systems, failed ideas, and ever increasing obstacles to life and liberty, stifle human aspiration and incentive for superior endeavor.
As Attorney General John Ashcroft led the group through their oath of loyalty to our “American” ideal and nation, I silently mouthed the words with them, reaffirming my own dedication to our nation’s ongoing struggle to maintain the freedom that is the basis for economic and individual liberty, and the opportunity to build personal wealth and security for each citizen. With profound respect, I considered the experiences and sufferings of those seeking this newfound freedom, on the cusp of which the assembled now leaned forward.
No doubt you may have heard, or continue to hear from nay-sayers on American university campuses, within the press, and even from some individuals in our own government, that this nation never was or will never be the example of what passes for a “just” amalgamation of a modern society based on globalist vision. Well, there was nary an indicator of any of that at the Miami Beach Convention Center on Thursday.
I spoke with spectators and participants, INS officials and security guards. The reactions mirrored each other. A Peruvian husband would today be the first to lead his family effort in all becoming citizens. A Haitian woman would get her passport today and a chance to work in a job indoors. A young Ecuadorian man would lay his past to rest and share in the dream of a prosperous livelihood previously denied him for having the wrong last name. One more Colombian father would not have to brave guerilla violence in getting his agricultural products to a market now.
And through it all, we in the audience welcomed more Cubans who long to earn money for a car or have the privilege of using the Internet, Zimbabweans who wanted to vote in a real election, Jamaicans who wanted a better education, and even some former British ex-patriates who wanted to simply keep a fair amount of their earnings and escape the oppressive taxation that ruins entrepreneurial spirit and stifles initiative. There was not much hand wringing about injustice or a lack of diversity to be seen on that morning. On that day to almost all of us present, minus a few possible cynics and infiltrators, the United States still represented the best justice we could ever hope to achieve.
As I headed back to school, I realized that we are all mostly children or grandchildren of immigrants. In having been born here or having a U.S. citizen for a parent, freedom is something we manage to continually take for granted.
This is a privilege that permits us the virtue of a nearly guaranteed birthright with our blue passports. But the words of Attorney General Ashcroft also sounded a sobering call. Along with all the talk of rights we constantly wallow around in during this narcissistic and sometimes nihilistic age, he reinforced the just notion of responsibility and accountability we have as citizens.
We have the obligation to play within rules that, for us, are pleasingly unrestrictive. And these are loose for a reason: without that freedom to act and an understanding of responsibility as well as rights, we run the risk of rushing back to failed or disproved notions of justice and false securities of kings or despotic regimes, the likes of which my new companions had just fled with their lives.
Steven Stanley is a graduate student of International Administration in the School of International Studies.