Citizenship meant a lot to everyone in the Frederick E. Tuttle Middle School last Wednesday. For the 31 immigrants seated on the stage in the school’s multi-purpose room about to become U.S. citizens, it meant everything. Ranging in age from 23 to 96, they hailed from 21 countries around the world.
Guest speaker and Vermont’s Public Safety Commissioner Thomas D. Anderson captured the importance of the day in his opening remarks as he addressed the new citizens directly from the podium.
“When you woke up this morning, you were Czech, Dutch, Bhutanese, Jamaican, Thai, Vietnamese, German, Ukrainian, Filipino, Portuguese, Ethiopian, Brazilian, Chinese, Canadian, Trinidadian, and Tobagoan,” Anderson said. “When you go to bed tonight, every one of you will be an American. How many countries in the world allow something like that? It’s one of the many things that makes this country great.”
The current political climate, the escalation of anti-immigrant bias, and the looming mid-term elections were felt during the proceedings, particularly with regard to the right to vote, and the responsibility to exercise that right.
In his remarks welcoming the new citizens, Tuttle Middle School Principal Karsten Schlenter shared that he is a native of Germany and became a U.S. citizen three years ago. Tuttle students also attended the naturalization ceremony, a real-life civics lesson.
“It is a very impressionable moment for our students,” he said. “Naturalization is a significant and memorable stage in your life. I know what it feels like.”
The ceremony was presided over by U.S. District Court Judge John M. Conroy, and included representatives from the U.S. Marshals’ Office, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the League of Woman Voters, the U.S. Passport Office, and American Legion Post 31, as well as representatives from the offices of Vermont Sens. Patrick Leahy (D) and Bernie Sanders (I), and Congressman Peter Welch (D).
Also on hand were the South Burlington High School Chamber Singers, and the Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School Eighth Grade Chorus, singing the “The Star Spangled Banner” and “These Green Mountains”, respectively.
In his remarks, Schlenter listed a number of rights and privileges U.S. citizens have, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but it was the right to vote that the principal emphasized.
“I would argue that citizenship comes with inherent responsibilities and expectations,” Schlenter said. “As citizens of this nation, I urge you to stay informed, to become productive members from your community, and to stand up for what you believe in. I encourage you to become actively engaged in order to shape the destiny of this nation. Your nation.”
Schlenter also said that with new citizens comes an opportunity for increased diversity in America, which serves everyone.
“The fact that you can offer different insights and beliefs based on your ethnic origin helps us all to appreciate and celebrate diversity,” Schlenter said. “Yet it also reminds us that we need to be inclusive in nature, and in our thinking, and welcome differences.
Anderson also shared a personal connection to citizenship.
“I want you to know this is not my first naturalization ceremony,” he said. “It’s actually my third. The first was my adopted sister Rosemary, who became a United States citizen in 1965. The second was when my adopted brother Terry became a U.S. citizen in 1969. Both were adopted from an orphanage in Macao, China. I was only in grammar school, but those days are etched in my memory forever, as this one will be for you.”
Anderson reiterated the assertion that the diversity immigrants bring to American society is valuable and should be encouraged, not demonized.
“You are part of America’s family,” Anderson said, “and despite what you have read in newspapers or seen on television, the vast majority of Americans are generous, caring, and welcoming. Let me say this loud and clear: You are very welcome here.”
Anderson told the new citizens that America’s history is now their history, from the Declaration of Independence to the Battle of Gettysburg, and from to the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“It is a deep, rich history, but do not forget your past,” he said. “You all have a different life story. It is those differences that give American its strength. You rejuvenate and renew our country.”
South Burlington resident Ibrahim Ali, 28, was at Wednesday’s ceremony to see his brother, Hassan Dirac, 35, of Somalia, become a citizen. Ali had come to this country a few years ago, and was anxious to see his brother join him and the rest of the family as a United States citizen, saying the whole family helped his brother study.
“He’s worked hard for this,” Ali said. “It’s taken him five years. He studied hard.”
After the ceremony, Dirac, a widower who lives in Shelburne, was joined by his brother, sisters, nephew, and three of his four children.
“I’m very happy, “ Dirac said, a big smile on his face. “Now, my kids will become citizens, too.”
Anderson punctuated his remarks with quotes from former presidents George H. W. Buch, Barack Obama, and John F. Kennedy, all of whom addressed the fact that being an engaged citizen of the United States is a difficult and lifelong obligation.
“The truth is, being an American is hard,” Anderson quoted Obama as saying in 2015. “Being part of a democratic government is hard. Being a citizen is hard. It is a challenge. It’s supposed to be. There’s no respite from our ideals. All of us are called to live up to our expectations to ourselves, not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient. When’s it’s tough, when we’re afraid.”
Anders on said he wanted to add another responsibility.
“Be an informed and active citizen in your community,” he told the group. “Volunteer. Get involved in your children’s schools. Learn about the issues important to you, and most importantly, vote. Your vote means something. Protect it, cherish it, and fully exercise it. It is a right that many Americans have died to protect.”
SOURCE: Lee Kahrs, The Other Paper