Yesterday was a happy day. I conducted a naturalization ceremony in the special proceedings (big) courtroom in Lincoln. The place was packed with all types of people including little kids who ran around having the time of their lives.

I conduct a rather bare bones ceremony. I introduce myself, the naturalization examiner and the women and men (mostly old, like me) from the civic groups that help us. Then the examiner names each new citizen. The poor fellow struggles over pronunciation, but he gets close. He then makes a formal motion to admit the candidates to citizenship upon their taking the required oath. Of course, I grant the motion.

After each new citizen is identified, they stand and raise their right hands. The courtroom deputy administers an oath to the citizens, and then I start clapping and everyone else joins in. Everyone sits down, and we play a video of the President speaking to the new citizens.

I then make a short address to the new citizens.  Here is my address:

It is customary to speak to our new citizens about what a great country we have, and how fortunate they are to become citizens of this great country. However, it struck me that this country became great and remains great in large part because of its immigrants. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to celebrate this moment not by boasting about this country, but rather by stressing that those of us who are born to American citizenship should be thankful to immigrants past, present and future. Let me elaborate briefly.

First, all too often those of us who were born to American citizenship forget that each of us, with the exception of Native Americans, has an immigrant in our history. Many of us descended from German, Swedish, English, Irish, Czech, Russian, French or Italian stock. Others of us have more exotic immigration histories in our families. But virtually all of us have our forefathers to thank for the traumatic task of immigration. Whether they were dragged here in the terrible confines of a slave ship or booked passage on a luxury liner, our immigrant ancestors took risks to come to this country. Therefore, most native-born citizens owe a real debt of gratitude to the immigrants in our past–a debt that we should not forget.

Second, all too often we forget what each generation of new immigrants has done for this country. Our political system was inspired by immigrants. Our railroads, our coal mines, our cotton fields, our oil wells and our steel mills were built, dug, tended, drilled or stoked by immigrants. Our space program is a testament to immigrants. Our wars were fought by immigrants. Virtually everything of value that we have in this country–from political freedom to economic progress–was in some positive way influenced by immigrants.

Third, all too often we forget that immigrants by their mere presence bless us with a diversity that truly enriches our spirit. What would Boston be without the sound of an Irish brogue? What would Milwaukee be without German food? Could there really be a San Francisco without Chinatown? Can you imagine Chicago without the ethnic neighborhoods of Poles, Czechs and Hungarians? Wouldn’t Miami be a boring expanse of sand without the Cubans? Aren’t cities with names like San Antonio, Santa Fe and Los Angeles contradictions in terms without the Mexicans? Our art, our food, our music, our humor, our language, our literature and, indeed, our daily lives are made immensely more interesting because of immigrants.

In summary, those of us who today welcome our new citizens would do well to reflect on how lucky we–not they–are. The new citizens we welcome today will enrich this nation beyond any expectation. It is with these grateful thoughts that I welcome each and every one of our new citizens.

Here is a photo of a dear, dear friend and former law clerk (Mary) and her little boy. Long ago, I had the privilege of conducting that naturalization ceremony when he became a citizen. He is all grown up now.

Here is a photo of a dear, dear friend and former law clerk (Mary) and her little boy. Long ago, I had the privilege of conducting the naturalization ceremony when he became a citizen. He is all grown up now, but I never tire of this photo and the memory it evokes.

After my little speech, I walk down from the bench. One by one the new citizens and I greet each other. I hand each person their nice looking certificate. Almost always, the family wants to take photos with the new citizen, the examiner and myself. We happily oblige. Sometimes I hold the children, although yesterday I picked up one chunky but darling little boy without realizing the kid weighed almost more than I could lift. My struggle caused giggles all around. I love handing out the certificates because it allows me to chat briefly and individually with each new friend, and those chats are heartwarming. I take care not to offer to shake the hands of Muslim women since that is offensive to some. Other than that, the task is easy and fun.

Following the ceremony in the courtroom, the citizens can attend a reception in their honor in our jury assembly room. Cookies, cake and punch are served by the civic groups. The new citizens can also register to vote in a booth set up near the reception area. Additionally, they can meet with the Social Security folks to get their SS cards. By then, I am back in my office with a big grin on my face.


19 responses

  1. I love your talk and understand your grin. It is virtually the only thing we do where everyone is happy. Years ago I added to the agenda a short talk from one of the new citizens about what there new citizenship means to them. Because a Judge O’Brien amd our terrific mag judge enjoy doing them I seldom have the privilege of doing them and I don’t know if the have a new citizen speak. I asked immigration to pick a new citizen to do this. The very first one was a woman from Vietnam who fled the oppression in the middle of the night with her children, the clothes on their back and less than a dollar. Everyone in the courtroom iincluding me were in tears. I think it would have brought a tear or two to your eyes as well. Thank you for your extraordinary service to the United States of America.

  2. Judge:
    As the son of a poor Italian immigrant who came to the United States in 1960, I can say that this story brought a tear to my eye. Thank you for this blog entry and for your service to our country.

  3. Mark,

    That is a great idea–having a new citizen give the address. Thanks for sharing the idea. I may well try it out.

    All the best to you my dear friend.


  4. Judge, A lovely reminder of your deep humanity, thought of my grandfather who came as a boy from Kilkenny and spent a life time as an Omaha police detective and all the railroaders in my father’s family. UP history describes my greatuncle John as a loud mouth, bull necked, red faced Irish bully, and he was not in the law department.

  5. I too never tire of this photo and its associated memories. The transcript of the ceremony that you signed is treasured. And I remember another touching ceremony you performed when my kids’ Montessori class attended the naturalization of their Irish-born teacher. You read from Shel Silverstein. More good memories!

  6. I have thought for years that high schools should require all students to attend a naturalization ceremony. They would see a sea of folks who do not take their citizenship for granted. Thank you my dear friend for posting on this.

  7. A bodacious speech.

    Our space program is a testament to immigrants.

    A line from a Bruce Dern character in a movie done in the early post-sputnik years, but the truth of it is as you say: asked by a reporter about our performance in the space race, Dern expressed little concern, saying I think our German scientists are better than their German scientists, don’t you?

    Oh, and my FIL emigrated from England twice: once as a boy, and again as an adult when he knew what he was doing (a series of family deaths in England had drawn his mother, and him, back to the Old Country the first time). And then he joined the Navy for WWII.

    Eric Hines

  8. When I was young, my family fled a land where we feared the government because it could do anything it wanted to us with impunity, and “the law” was whatever the judge said it was on that given day.

    Now, I live in a country where I fear my government because it could do anything it wanted to us with impunity (judicial/prosecutorial/official/sovereign immunty and prosecutorial discretion), and “the law” was whatever the judge says it is on that given day (unpublished opinions and no Supreme Court review of plain error).

    Tell me again, Your Honors, how lucky I am.

  9. I learned the hard way that becoming an American subject (citizens have rights, and Americans have a mere tenancy-at-will in their liberties) wasn’t worth much.

  10. Nice speech, your honor. I appreciate that naturalization ceremonies are a respite from the contentious norm, and we should be grateful you give it genuine thought and consideration and make the most of the opportunities.

  11. It is a wonderful talk, a true welcome to citizenship. 🙂

    However, having lived in and around Santa Fe, NM, for 11 years the term, Mexican, grated on my ears. IMX the vast majority of Hispanics in Northern NM trace their ancestry to Spain, not to Mexico, and, if the question comes up, take some pains to point that out. In their view it is the Anglos who are immigrants, and rightly so. I don’t know about San Antonio and Los Angeles, but I would not be surprised if many Hispanics there do not consider the Anglos to be immigrants, as well. 🙂

  12. I clerked in the Middle District of NC during the John Edwards trial. For weeks, the courthouse entrance was teeming with reporters and cameramen, which usually gave the area a very “tabloid” feel. We had a naturalization ceremony during this time and someone tipped off the media, who then gave each new citizen a standing ovation when he or she (and their families) exited the courthouse. It was a really nice moment in the midst of otherwise unsavory drama.

  13. Well said. Though America is far from perfect, and Americans should always strive to make it better, no one is marching off to work with a gun to the head. And every wave of new citizens makes its own unique contribution, so that the sum is somehow better than the individual parts.

    I find it hard to be a curmudgeon when talking about this.

    Yes, Ivan, we do have second-class citizens here. It has always been thus. But things could be a lot worse.

  14. Hard to say. The Mayans hail from central Mexico. It would be like lumping the Greeks and French together. The Spanish-American war was a classic land-grab, and the case can certainly be made.

    I think of Davy Crockett saying that others could go to hell, but that he was going to Texas. Having lived there, I’m not sure that the others didn’t get the better of the deal.

  15. NC lawyer,

    Yes, what a great way to welcome our new citizens. The image conveyed by your message brings a smile to my wrinkly old fat face. Little pleasures, don’t you know. Thank you.

    All the best.


  16. I always thought that every student in a high school civics class should have to “take” the naturalization exam. Becoming a U.S. citizen is not an easy task (especially if English is not your first language). Too many native born Americans take citizenship for granted and forget what our immigrant ancestors had to go through — both to get here and once they got here. I am always embarrassed when members of my ethnic groups use the same insults on new immigrants that were heaped on our ancestors when they got here.

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