Devereaux Stokes attorney Gonzalo Fernandez, an immigrant from Argentina, spoke at the St. Louis Courthouse naturalization ceremony on Jan. 20 as 53 individuals took the oath of US citizenship. Below is a transcript of his remarks.
Congratulations! I am very honored and pleased to be here sharing this special day with you. I, like you, am an immigrant to this country. My parents were born and raised in Argentina, they themselves the children of immigrants from Spain and Italy. I was born in Argentina and came to this country as a young child. Years later I was sworn in as a citizen of the United States, just as you will be, here today.
When we come into this world we don’t have any choice as to the family, the country or circumstances that we are born into. Later in life we can make choices. Today, all of you have made a choice. A choice to adopt a new country, a new family, to become a citizen of the United States of America.
All of us here in this courtroom come from many different backgrounds. We have 52 new citizens from 25 different countries. We have all come to this place for many different reasons. For some the path may have been relatively easy: perhaps you came in search of an education, better job opportunities or simply to be close to family members who were already here. For others, the journey has been much more difficult, even treacherous, as they fled from war or persecution in their home countries. We all have our individual stories of what brought us here, why we came. But we share this in common: We are all here because we have made a conscious and free choice to come here and make this place our new Home.
These are not easy decisions, to tear yourself away from your homeland, your culture, your family and friends, from the only thing you have ever known. It’s not a decision one makes lightly. But you do it because you see in this new place some hope, some opportunity for a better life. You do it because you want your children to be able to reach further than you were able to.
You are not the first to have that dream. That dream is what gave birth to our country. The United States is a country that was founded by immigrants, rebelling against tyranny, searching for a better life, where they could take control of their own destinies.
Just about every country in the world, to some extent, allows immigrants to enter. But there is something very unique about the United States and our relationship with immigrants. We are a nation born of immigrants. President Obama said it perfectly when he said, Immigration is our story of origin. And, over the last two centuries it has remained at the absolute core of who we are as a nation. Unless you are a Native American, you are an immigrant to this country. Eight of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were immigrants. The hard work and diversity of generations of immigrants is what has allowed our country to grow and prosper. It is our national motto, inscribed on the walls of this very court house, and on every piece of US Currency: “E Pluribus Unum” – Out of Many – One. That is who we are.
At times, unfortunately, we may forget who we are. As you are being sworn in here today as new citizens, 800 miles to the east, at this exact moment, our 45th President is also taking an oath to serve this country. This is a man who has been rather outspoken on his views towards immigration and seems to have lost the historical perspective of the contributions made by immigrants to our country.
The irony is that all of us, including our newest President, are children of immigrants. A generation passes, and then another, and all of a sudden, we don’t remember where we came from. We draw lines between “Us” and “Them”, forgetting that we used to be “Them”. Or maybe are even married to Them.
When asked to give this talk and I realized we would all be here on Inauguration day, my first thought was of the irony of the situation. And then as I thought about it, I realized, What better day to talk about what immigrants mean to this country?
Sometimes, those of us that have been here a while, grow complacent with the gifts we have been given. We get so used to the freedom and opportunities bestowed upon us by our Constitution that we begin to take them for granted. At times, we need to be reminded of what a truly special gift it is.
Your presence here today, and your willingness to take this oath today, is a testament to your faith in the strength of our democratic system. It is a recognition that no one person, is above the values and Ideas upon which our country was founded. And your taking this oath reminds all of us, on this inauguration day, to have faith and hope in our democratic system and in our fellow citizens.
I need to remind you today that with all of the wonderful opportunities of citizenship there also comes great responsibility. Citizenship is much more than a piece of paper to go throw in a drawer when you get home. It’s more than a 9 digit number that lets you work, or an extension of your visa to let you stay a bit longer. The Irish philosopher and poet, Edmund Burke, once said, “Evil is allowed to triumph when good men stand idly by and do nothing.” Don’t be one of those good idle men.
Be an active citizen. Make a difference in your new country. I know this can seem overwhelming, but trust me when I tell you that the best way to do this is to simply walk out your front door, look to the left, look to the right, and ask yourself, What can I do to make my community a better place. Get involved with your neighborhoods, in your kids’ schools, your local library, in your church, synagogue or mosque, whatever cause moves you or gives you passion. Educate yourself on the issues that are important to you and your family. Register to vote, and when the time comes go out and do it. Go vote for the leaders you feel best represent you and your values. If called upon for jury service, serve willingly and with pride. Citizenship is not a spectator sport. Get involved and make a difference. Make your new home a place you’re proud of, a place you want your children to be proud to call their home.
The last thing I want to say to you today is to embrace your past. Today you swear your allegiance to a new government. You have a new flag, a new Constitution and a new political system. But by taking this oath you are not being asked to renounce your heritage, your culture, your language or your personal history. We must each be true to the cultural inheritance we bring with us. We come from many different places, but from this day forward we are all Americans. This band of unity does not bleach away your past heritage and experiences. We can not abandon or deny our past; it defines us and makes us who we are today, both as an individual and as a nation. Becoming a U.S citizen Unites us not divides us. The hopes, dreams and hard work of people who have come to a new land in search of a better life is what has made this great nation strong and prosper. I encourage all of you to honor and value these differences amongst us, and to remember to value your own culture and your past as you move forward together as new citizens of this great country. Congratulations, and on this special day, God bless the United States of America.