You Are What America Looks Like
What I said to 15 new American citizens at their Naturalization Ceremony in New York City
It is such an honor to be here, and I thank you so much for choosing me for the award, especially because it gives me the chance to be a part of the ceremony for these 15 new Americans. I’d like to start my remarks just with a few stories.
Akram Razzouk was a university student in Beirut when Lebanon’s brutal civil war broke out. It was not long before the army and militia were going door to door, enlisting every able-bodied man and boy to fight. Akram dreamed of studying medicine, and with his professors’ encouragement, he applied for a visa to go to the United States. He never expected to get one, but he did, together with a spot at a medical school in California. Akram left Beirut carrying a few hundred dollars, two pairs of pants, and a few shirts. He was 19 years old. Two days after he arrived in the United States of America, soldiers showed up at his family’s home to conscript him. It was 1973.
In 1952, Chock Wai Wong was 15 years old, in Taishan, China, when he heard that the Communist Party was coming to register new members in his village. Not wanting to be there when they showed up, he fled to Hong Kong, where he spent most of his family’s savings on a boat ticket to America. When he arrived, he and the other Chinese passengers aboard were quarantined on Angel’s Island off the coast of San Francisco. Eventually allowed to come ashore, he made his way to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he started working in a Chinese restaurant run by his relatives. He eventually returned briefly to Hong Kong to marry, before going back to Iowa, where he took on every shift he could in the restaurant — pinching pennies so he could bring his wife and newborn daughter to America.
In April 1945, the U.S. army liberated the German town of Halberstadt from the Nazis. American soldiers went house to house, making sure that there were no Nazi soldiers hiding inside. One door was answered by a 12-year-old named Horst Rauhut. Horst had lost four members of his immediate family in the war — two brothers, who died fighting on the eastern front; a sister killed in an artillery strike; and his father, a firefighter, who was killed in an air raid. When Horst saw the U.S. soldiers on the doorstep, he figured they had come for revenge. But the Americans were respectful and generous, even sharing some of their food with him — something he never forgot. After the war, Horst became a chemist and married a girl from a neighboring town that had also been liberated by Americans. As they started a family of their own, they watched the Berlin wall go up and saw tensions rise again in their country. Fearful that their children might have to suffer through a war as they had when they were younger, they applied to come to the United States. In 1964, Horst, his wife, and their two young daughters boarded a flight to Washington, D.C.
Here’s my last story. In 1901, Joseph Steinberg left the shtetl in Kyiv, Ukraine. The Jewish residents there were routinely the target of mob attacks called pogroms. He set out for America to build a new life for his family. He left behind a pregnant wife and two children, and made the journey to New York, where he built a wooden pushcart on wheels, from which he sold eyeglasses. Customers would simply try on pairs until they found one — it’s impossible — until they found one pair of eyeglasses that could help them see. It took Joseph three years to sell enough glasses to send for his family — including his youngest son, Morris, who he had never met. Picking his family up at Ellis Island, Joseph brought the family to their new home. It was in a tenement building on Rivington Street, just a few blocks away from where we are today.
These are the stories of just four individuals who — like those of you who have become citizens here today — made a journey to become citizens of the United States. There are millions of stories like them. There are 15 — I guarantee you — sitting right here. And taken together, these stories are the threads that weave together the rich and intricate fabric of our nation. A nation that is now your nation, and in which your thread — which runs back through your ancestors — will now be a unique part.
Now, because I could have told a lot of stories, you might be wondering, ‘Why those four stories?’ Well, I picked these stories because these are the families of four of the many people who now serve with me in the U.S. government at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, helping represent our nation — the United States — to the world.
Remember Akram Razzouk — whose story I started with — Akram who fled Lebanon’s civil war to come here to study medicine in California? His daughter Kelly is a U.S. career civil servant and a leading human rights expert at the U.S. Mission.
The baby daughter whom Chock Wai Wong worked endless restaurant shifts in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to bring here from China was named Kam. She’s been serving in the State Department for 25 years — the last two years with me here in New York.
Horst Rauhut — the 12-year-old whose town was liberated by American soldiers during the Second World War — eventually came to America, where he and his wife had their third child. That boy, Mike, went on to study at West Point, and is now our highest ranking military officer at the U.S. Mission to the UN.
And Joseph Steinberg, who sold eyeglasses on the streets around this museum to get his family out of the shtetl, is the great-grandfather of one of my closest advisors, Nik Steinberg.
Before I lose it further, let me ask three of the individuals I just named — Kam, Mike, and Nik — to stand up. They’re here with us. I couldn’t be more honored to get to work with these amazing public servants every day.
Thirty-seven years ago, as well, my family also came to this country as immigrants from Dublin, Ireland. I was nine when my mother, my younger brother, and I landed in Pittsburgh. I remember thinking that I had never seen a bigger or fancier place in my life. Fourteen years later, in a courthouse in Brooklyn — having studied for that test — having been terrified about that test — I became a U.S. citizen. And for the last three years, I — an immigrant — have had the privilege of sitting behind the placard that says United States of America at the United Nations.
Now, you may think that I have picked exceptional stories of people who work with me at the U.S. Mission to the UN, but as we heard here, every U.S. government agency is made up of people whose families made similarly remarkable journeys. And it is not just the U.S. government that looks like this. It is the teachers who educate our children. It is the doctors and the nurses who take care of our sick. It is the workers who staff our businesses — from factories to high tech. Everywhere you look, this is what America looks like.
You are what America looks like. And as much as any other quality, this is what makes this country so exceptional.
Today, you, too, have become citizens of this nation — at a pretty tumultuous time, as you may have read in the newspapers. For some of you, this may be a day of mixed emotions. I suspect many of you were drawn to this country not only because of the opportunities it offers — but also because of the principles that it stands for and strives to live up to. A nation built on the values of freedom and justice, and the idea that all citizens have the right to be treated equally, and with dignity.
And yet we have just come through an election campaign in which some of these very principles have been called into question. We’ve heard politicians, public figures, and citizens call for people to be treated differently because of what they believe or because of where they were born. We’ve heard immigrants blamed for many of our country’s problems.
Sadly, this is far from the first time. We are a nation of immigrants, but for as long as this amazing country has existed, people have been harkening back to a mythical golden era, before families like yours or mine got here. It never seems to matter to those people that their own parents or their own grandparents were often on the receiving end of similar discrimination when they first arrived in this country.
But even if we know deep down that such intolerance is as old as the nation itself — as every nation — it doesn’t make it hurt any less when we experience it. And it doesn’t make us any less concerned or any less afraid when we see a spike in reported hate crimes as we have in just the last week.
I imagine that this most recent stretch may have led some of you to ask whether this is the America that you thought you were joining. It may even have led a few of you to reconsider whether you wanted to become U.S. citizens. Yet a week after such a divisive election, here you are, taking this critical, beautiful step.
Since I have a couple decades’ head start on you, I hope you will allow me to offer just a few parting thoughts on what it means to become an American — and just as important, what it does not mean.
You may hear some people say that — in order to become real Americans — you need to forget where you came from, or leave behind the history that brought you to this moment. Cover up your accent. Change the way you dress. Stick to neighborhoods where immigrants like you live. Please don’t listen to those voices. Joining a new nation does not mean you have to leave behind the one you came from or what it taught you.
Every one of those individuals whose histories I shared at the outset here today is a better citizen and a better public servant because of the values that their immigrant families brought with them from other places.
Kelly Razzouk fights harder for the freedom of political prisoners because she knows her father may well have been one of them, had he been unable to leave Lebanon. Kam Wong treats every single individual who walks through the doors of the U.S. Mission to the UN with decency — regardless of who they are or where they’re from — in part because she remembers how much it meant to her Chinese-speaking mother when — shortly after arriving in Iowa — a neighbor knocked on her door and offered to teach the family English. Nik Steinberg is driven to work harder on behalf of refugees fleeing violence and persecution because he knows what would have happened to his relatives if no country had taken them in. And Mike Rauhut is an even better military leader because he carries with him the indelible lessons of his parents’ experience — of being liberated by soldiers who treated them with dignity and compassion.
The same goes for me. The qualities I rely most on as a diplomat and in my most important job, as a mother of two small children, are ones I learned from my mother and father, both of whom are Irish immigrants. My father’s sitting here with us today. All of this history is what makes our citizens and our nation so exceptional. Why would we ever want to give that up? So don’t listen to those who say you have to choose between being a proud American and a proud immigrant. You can be both. You must be both.
Of course, even as you are careful not to give up a sense of where you’ve come from, you mustn’t let that be the only thing that defines you. Of course you have your roots. Your family. Your faith. The parts of you that — no matter where you go — will always feel like home. But while those roots will always anchor you in the ground, they are also what allow you to reach to the sky — if only you let them. In this amazing city of ours, you have a unique opportunity to engage with people who are so different from you — just in your little cohort here today. Engage them. Get to know them. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn from them — and, of course, they from you.
I believe that one of the reasons our nation feels so divided of late is because this mingling, this engagement isn’t happening nearly enough — not just among immigrants, but all Americans. It’s easier to fear others if we never have a chance to talk with them. When we get to know them, we’re often surprised to discover that beneath all the parts on the outside that appear so different, there is so much on the inside that is the same.
And the more we learn to see ourselves in our fellow citizens, and walk around in their shoes, the less it becomes us and them, and the more it becomes just us.
Now, you may also hear some people say that, because you haven’t been here as long, you somehow deserve less of a say in shaping our nation. Nonsense. As of today, America is as much your county as it is any other citizen’s country. That is your right. But that right — like all the others that are now yours — comes with a profound and enduring responsibility.
And on that responsibility, I would like to close with a brief story — a familiar story some of you may have even learned in studying American history for your citizenship exam, and a story that feels particularly relevant in these times. In 1787 — a long time ago — delegates from 12 of the United States’ 13 colonies gathered in Philadelphia’s State House with the aim of reforming their government. They spent more than four months wrangling over the document that would eventually become our nation’s Constitution. When the news spread that they had finally reached an agreement, citizens rushed to the State House to learn what had happened. As one delegate, Benjamin Franklin, walked out of the building, a woman stopped him and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin quickly replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” A republic, if you can keep it.
Now, Franklin was a founding father. Few had done more to define the principles at the heart of our then-young nation — ones he felt the Constitution was “near to perfection” in reflecting. But even then — even a founding father, even Franklin — recognized that whether the United States lived up to those ideals and succeeded as a nation would not be determined by any document, or even any government, but rather rested in the hands of America’s citizens. Not by words on a page, but by the actions of real people.
A republic, if you can keep it. A republic, if we can keep it. We, citizens.
In a moment, I’m going to be asking you to place your hand on your heart and pledge allegiance to our republic. As you do, remember where you came from, and draw strength from it. Don’t let anyone tell you that because you are a new citizen, you are a second-class citizen. We only have one class of citizens here in America.
And remember that allegiance is about much more than just abiding by a system of laws. Today, you are sworn into what the great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called the most important office in our land — that of private citizen. The office of private citizen carries with it an awesome responsibility and an unparalleled privilege of being one of the individuals empowered to keep our republic strong. The fate of our nation, your nation — and everything it stands for — has and always will depend on it. Depend on us. We trust that you are up to the task, and we welcome you to this country with open arms.
Now, as your first act as American citizens, I would ask that you please rise and join me in the Pledge of Allegiance.
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Thank you so much, and congratulations!