My Remarks to 85 New Americans

Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power at a Naturalization Ceremony in New York City, September 30, 2015

Thank you so much, Phyllis. This is a tremendous honor for me to get to share what will be one of the most important days in your lives. With the birth of your children and your marriage, this is a day you'll remember. So thank you for letting me be part of it.

All of you -- and in many cases your loved ones -- have made journeys from the places where you were born to this building, in this city, on this day. You come from 28 countries, but now, you are all Americans and it's very humbling for me to get to be a part of this.

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As I rode here this morning, I remembered when I was sitting as you are now -- in a naturalization ceremony, in Brooklyn as it happened, and it was a ceremony a lot like this one. And I was just waiting for my cue as to when I was to raise my hand.

It was 36 years ago when I came to this country. I was nine years old. I emigrated to the United States from my native Ireland. Our plane landed in Pittsburgh. And when I arrived, I was sure that the airport that I had landed in was the biggest in the history of mankind. In the first months after my arrival, I was happy to be in America, everything seemed very cool, but I wasn't sure if I would ever fit in. I spoke the same language as my classmates, so I had one advantage in that my native language was English, but I had a thick Dublin accent that all the other kids made fun of. I didn't have the same cultural references as other kids -- I hadn't watched the TV shows, I didn't know the songs. I loved sports, but I didn't understand American sports. Does any of this sound familiar?

And years later, when I was 23, and it became time to become a citizen, I found out I would have to pass a test on American civics and history, and I was terrified. Even as a kid, I had understood that missing my chance to become a citizen would mean losing out on the opportunity of becoming who I wanted to be. And what 23-year-old wants to do that -- wants to forfeit that opportunity? So what I remember most from my whole citizenship process was the day of the exam, and again, it was 22 years ago. All the people sitting around the waiting room -- and I know for some of you, this was just in the last few weeks -- anxiously quizzing each other, flipping through the flashcards -- trying to remember which rights were protected by the 1st Amendment, how many judges were on the Supreme Court, trying not to say that the capital of New York State was New York City -- even though we know it's actually got to be New York City.

My being here with you today tells you, and reminds me, that I did end up passing that test. So did my dad, who's here with me today. I'm very proud of him.

And being here with you today, I get a feeling that I experience often, which can be a little overwhelming. And at its root is this: were it not...it's very moving. My son warned me I was going to cry. Were it not for the remarkable bravery of my mother and my dad and the tremendous generosity of this country - I would not be here, and I wouldn't get to do so many of the things I get to do; I wouldn't get to be the person I am. I wouldn't have been educated in American public schools, got to attend an eye-opening American university. I wouldn't have met the man I love, if I hadn't come to America. I wouldn't have these two children -- who are being so well-behaved -- children born in this country. My children are born in this country; my children are Americans, luckily will never have to take that test. And nor would I get to serve in the U.S. government, get to work for a man like President Obama, himself the descendant of a Kenyan national. And serving as I do every day at the United Nations, it's surreal as an immigrant. I get to go to work every day and there's a placard that says, "United States of America," and I, an immigrant, get to represent this country, and that happens all the time. Madeleine Albright, who was mentioned, our first female Secretary of State, she had the job I have, also got to sit behind the placard as an immigrant.

One of the characteristics that defines us as immigrants in this country is we never lose sight of the fact that we might not have made it to America, right? None of you lose sight of that; every day you remember how lucky you are. And there are awe-inspiring opportunities in this country, and we all know because we all have family back in our home countries, that many of the people in those countries would dream about being part of a ceremony like today's.

Yet at the same time as we immigrants never lose that feeling of wonder at our good fortune, I imagine that some days, for many of you, it can feel a little tough to be an immigrant in this country. We hear politicians and other public figures blaming immigrants for every problem that they perceive in America. In their eyes, people who look different or speak a different language or pray in a different house of worship, they often act like those people are changing this country for the worse.

And this sentiment, I gotta tell you, has been with us for a very long time -- it's not new. For as long as this tremendous, remarkable country has existed there have been those who claim to represent an original, pure America, and who define themselves in opposition to newly-arrived immigrants. For example, in the middle of the nineteenth century, when one in every four people in New York came from my native country of Ireland, it was not uncommon when you walked around the streets of New York to see signs in shop windows that read, "Help Wanted. No Irish need apply." After the Irish it was the Italian immigrants who were discriminated against; after the Italians, it was the Chinese; and so on. The point is there's always been an "us" and a "them" -- even if the definition of who represents the "us" and the "them" has changed over time.

And, as you all know, this narrow-minded view of the world is not at all unique to America. Look at any of the 28 countries where you all were born -- or any country in the world, for that matter- - and you will find a version of this very unfortunate tradition. You see it right now in parts of Europe, where anti-immigrant parties are urging their nations to turn away families fleeing devastating wars and famine, and where thugs are actually attacking the shelters that are providing refuge to the newly arrived, people who've risked everything to try to create better opportunity and better lives, and just basic physical security for their families.

Today, before I let you go on your way as Americans, I have just three important messages for you as you encounter such attitudes along the way.

First, do not assume that because these voices are loud -- and particularly in election seasons they are loud -- do not assume that they speak for many. They do not. The vast majority of Americans recognize what we know to be true: we are a proud nation of immigrants. We always have been. And most Americans realize that it was not that long ago that their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents sat exactly where you sit now -- in a court house or a city hall or some other government building across this country -- taking the sacred oath that you have taken.

Second, never think that becoming American means you have to hide or forget the communities, cultures, and traditions you come from. Indeed, it is this diversity that has always been one of the greatest sources of America's strength in the world. And for more than 200 years, it has been a foundation of our innovation and our energy, and the wellspring for the plurality of the ideas that get batted around in this country. It has also taught us to see ourselves through the eyes of others, because we know it wasn't that long ago that we were the outsiders, which makes us better citizens of the world, gives us empathy. To be American means to be you -- to know who you are and where you come from. No one gets to tell you otherwise. Don't let them.

Within my own family, I have experienced the richness that this sense of history can bring. My two kids, Declan and Rian, are six and three years old. And one woman who is among you, who is becoming a citizen with you today, Maria Castro, has helped me raise them. Maria and I are not related by blood, but we are family. Maria was born in Mexico... [Inaudible]. Maria was born in Mexico, in Jalisco. And in helping me bring up my kids, she's not only taught my children her language - to see these little Irish kids, Irish-American kids, fluent in Spanish is crazy, these words rolling off the tongue - but more importantly, she's taught them her values. How to listen. How to treat people with respect and dignity. How to live life and savor the small wonders every day.

Those of you here today who are parents know to your core that there is no greater demonstration of faith in someone than in trusting them with the upbringing of your kids. And I can tell you, my children have learned so much from Maria because she has never lost sight of where she is from, and all that where she is from taught her. She carries the values her family and community impressed upon her, giving life to them in her every action. And because she's held onto those values, my kids are learning from them too, and will carry what Maria teaches them for the rest of their lives.

But holding onto where you come from should not hold you back from immersing yourself in your adopted nation and in your new, or in some cases, old communities. And this is my third and final point. I've told you that America is richer for having you in it, but that means you must reach beyond the community that is familiar to you, to take advantage of your right to shape this country. That is what one of our nation's greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln, meant when he spoke of forming "a more perfect union" - a quote many of you have learned for your citizenship exam. That is what it means to be part of a democracy, to help make it better.

As many of you know, the Pope was here last week, and I had the extraordinary honor of hearing him speak. On Saturday, he spoke to a group of people outside of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, where our nation's Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and adopted. Many of the people the Pope spoke to were immigrants, and he delivered a message that feels very appropriate to this day. He said: "I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land... You are also called upon to be responsible citizens, and to contribute fruitfully to the life of the communities in which you live." This is my favorite line: "By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within." To renew society from within.

Today, we ask you to join us in the eternal project of renewing our great nation from within. The ability to shape America is now your right. And we are counting on you to exercise it. We welcome you with open arms. Thank you so much.