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Thursday, September 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Petula Dvorak: Welcome to the family, new Americans

Fifty-one immigrants from 28 countries became American citizens on the Fourth of July at Mount Vernon in Virginia. (Petula Dvorak / Washington Post)
Fifty-one immigrants from 28 countries became American citizens on the Fourth of July at Mount Vernon in Virginia. (Petula Dvorak / Washington Post)
By Petula Dvorak Washington Post

It was a perfect scene for the Fourth of July.

The American president strode confidently onto the stage, set against a breathtaking backdrop, and people cheered wildly.

And he spread his arms and welcomed immigrants to our nation as newly minted U.S. citizens, congratulating them for choosing “to contribute to the beacon light of America” and reminding them that brotherly affection for one another is one of our founding principles.

And when he finished speaking, he told them he was their “humble and obedient servant.”

Most of the story is true. There was indeed a stirring naturalization ceremony for 51 new Americans from 28 countries – Afghanistan to Vietnam – on Independence Day morning. It was held on a green knoll with a sweeping view of the Potomac River, right on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

But President Donald Trump did not come to welcome these people to America.

He was across the river in Washington, summoning military tanks, fighter jets, campaign supporters and Republican chums on a sweltering day to attend a costly and bloated spectacle featuring himself.

It was a George Washington reenactor who spoke to the new Americans. And he was perfect.

Because these people did not come to Trump’s America. And they didn’t come to Obama’s America, or Bush’s America or Clinton’s or Reagan’s America, either.

No. They came to America five, 10, 20 or 30 years ago – to a country that, for them, transcends presidents and personalities, political fighting and partisanship.

They came for love, for freedom, for opportunity, for a future.

And seeing 51 people, from students to grandmothers, in hijab, skirts and formal suits, raise their right hands and recite the oath is stirring:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

Huan Vo was elated after reciting the oath.

“This is a place I can do a lot more here as an entrepreneur than I ever could in Vietnam,” said Vo, 34, who came to America 10 years ago as a hotel intern and today has his own business as a wedding planner.

“Here, I have so much more freedom to do what I want,” said Swathi Gaddam, 36, a mother of two and a software engineer. She wore an infinity scarf of red stripes and blue stars and held her certificate up proudly for the audience of tourists and families gathered to watch the ceremony.

Does she love the current state of political discourse in the nation?

Not especially. But she’s been in this country long enough to know America changes far faster than her native India.

“I have seen 20 years of change, of elections,” she said. “I am optimistic.”

For most of them, citizenship has been a long process that has taken years, decades even. That whole thing where people say they like immigrants but they “just want them to come legally”? They don’t know how hard that process is.

“I came in 1986,” said Reina Reyes, 54. She left Honduras when she was 21 and has been working toward citizenship ever since. She waved her little American flag throughout the ceremony. Wave on, Reina. You’ve been waiting 30 years for this day.

It should have been easy for Aranza Aleman, 29, who is married to a U.S.-born Marine. They met in Mexico, when he was there visiting his extended family. And they had to work for five years to make it all official.

“It was lots of lines, lots of paperwork. It cost around $5,000 to $7,000,” said her husband, Gerardo Muro, whose smile was as broad as his wife’s on this day. “But here we are, finally,” he said, taking her hand.

Aleman wore a strapless, floor-length red dress, and when she came onstage to get her certificate, the immigration official said, “Welcome to our American family.” People who didn’t even know her raised their phones to snap the scene, the red dress next to the American flag, all the smiles.

“I’m so happy to finally be an American,” she said. “But I’m from Mexico. It’s concerning to hear all this talk about a group of people. Most of us are hard-working, honest people. I work in a bank, I’ve never committed a crime, and most of the others are like me.”

She hopes that she can now work to change the minds of anyone who wants to keep immigrants out.

“People who are immigrants are scared. They just want their lives to be better. Who doesn’t want that?” she said. “That’s what America is about.”

Welcome to the family, new Americans. We need you.

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