We’re better together: new citizens

We are better together than we are alone.

It was one of many thoughts that crossed my mind Friday, March 15, at a ceremony in Sioux Falls, S.D., where I gave the keynote speech welcoming new citizens from 40 different countries to these United States. It was my first time at a naturalization ceremony. I wish everyone in America could experience it.

I wish everyone could see the joy and pride shining in the faces of those 237 new Americans, how eager and excited they are to be here, how much energy they bring to our country and the powerful level of gratitude they expressed to officials in attendance.

If everyone had witnessed that ceremony, I think we would have less discord about immigration in this “great land of liberty.”

I am one of the lucky ones. I was born here. My citizenship came easy. It was a birthright. The same is true of most U.S. citizens. Just six percent are naturalized, took the path less traveled and became Americans the hard way.

It’s not an easy or fast process. Most worked and waited years to join us. They became Americans through sacrifice, determination and vision of a better life. After their long journey to achieve it, they are unlikely to take the blessing of citizenship lightly.

And it is a blessing. America means equal opportunity and pursuit of happiness. America means rich and poor have the same rights. We support truth, justice and the rule of law. And no one in America – not even the president – is above that law.

Following is part of my speech to our new citizens, titled, “Journey to America the Great.”

America’s greatest achievements are not skyscrapers or jets. Our strength lies in our compassion, in our communities, where our people care for one another; where neighbors help neighbors – and strangers – in times of need.

America is big cities and small towns; cornfields and main streets; veterans and nurses; teachers and truck drivers; factory workers, farmers and firefighters.

 America is working one place 40 years or changing jobs every year if you want to. America is open government and voting and running for office if you want to.

America is a nation of immigrants, multi-cultural by design. We should be a celebration of diversity. America should mean respect and dignity for all people. America is red, white and blue. We’re also black, white and brown.

America is Democrats and Republicans and Independents. America is any religion or no religion – the right to pray freely or not pray at all.

America means liberty to be who we want to be and fighting for that freedom if need be. It means standing up to bullies who disguise bigotry and cruelty as patriotism.

Our leaders in America disappoint us at times. I speak out when that happens, but I never lose hope and pride in our country. We’re not defined by a single leader. We’re bigger and better than one person or moment in time.

We can bring our polarized country closer together by rediscovering shared values like freedom and equality. Those principles are more important than partisan beliefs that divide us.

I told a co-worker I was writing a speech called ‘Journey to America the Great.’ He laughed and said, “I’d call it ‘America the Corrupt’ or ‘America the Greedy.’”

Well, America is not perfect. But America is great. And we’re better than we were. Slavery was one of this country’s original sins. Horrible treatment of American Indians was another. We moved forward and became better by admitting our mistakes and not forgetting those shameful chapters in American history.

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.”

My cynical friend’s father was a World War II veteran, so he knows America is capable of greatness. Next year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote in this country – Aug. 18, 1920. That was another time we became better than we were. Just imagine how much the combined intelligence of our nation’s voters increased that day! 

Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon was another great moment, as was Rosa Parks refusing to give a white man her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955. Her isolated moment of courage has been making a difference ever since.

America has a great big heart and a strong heartbeat. We still inspire democracy and human rights in other countries. We still enjoy the liberty to make our own American dreams come true.

Congratulations on becoming United States citizens. Thank you for taking the journey to this day. It’s a supreme achievement. We’re proud of you.

I hope all 237 of you will be active citizens. We need people with your perseverance and fresh perspectives to help solve America’s problems. We need your courage and commitment to help us keep our flame of freedom burning bright.


Brian Hunhoff is a contributing editor at the Yankton County (SD) Observer. His opinions about open government and the First Amendment have been published in hundreds of newspapers and blogs from all 50 states and some foreign countries. He can be reached at brian@co.yankton.sd.us.