Thank you, Tom, for that introduction and for inviting me to be here today. And congratulations to all of you who just became American citizens, and to your families and friends who are here with us today. It is a privilege to be among the first to address you as fellow Americans.
Each of you has walked a long road to be here today. I know, because my own family walked that road many years ago. My father came to this country in 1921 with his younger sister, from what was then a part of Russia. He was 19 years old, they were alone, and virtually penniless, but they had hope, pride, and a strong work ethic.
Seven years later, in 1928, my father became a citizen of this country in Brooklyn, New York. That his son could stand before you, 80 years later, as Attorney General of the United States, to welcome a new group of citizens and to praise this great land, is a powerful statement about this country – especially because my family’s story is not at all unique.
Indeed, 80 years from now, one of your children or grandchildren may be addressing a crowd like this as Attorney General of the United States – or even as President of the United States. In this country, anything is possible.
For some of you, as for my father, getting here meant leaving home and parents and enduring long and difficult journeys. For some, it meant fleeing terrible circumstances in other countries. For some, it even meant putting on the uniform of this country and risking your lives in its defense. Today, you are all American citizens.
American citizenship is more than just a ceremony or a piece of paper. It is a commitment. It binds us to each other, and in an instant it makes us all equal.
From this moment forward, all of the rights of an American citizen are yours. You stand as equals before our courts of justice, and before our local, state, and federal government agencies. Your vote counts exactly the same as mine. And if you don't like what your elected officials do in your name, you have the right to petition your government, to support another candidate in the next election, or even to run for office yourself.
In the eyes of the law, there is no meaningful distinction between a citizen who was born here and one who chose to come here. And there is no meaningful distinction between one who is the first of his family to set foot on American soil, and one whose ancestors came hundreds of years ago.
No one appreciates more than you here today the value of citizenship. America blesses her citizens with liberties and opportunities that are the envy of the world. In return she asks certain things of you: that you help keep your neighborhoods safe; that you participate in your communities; that you exercise your right to vote; that you protect your children; and that you raise them to be law-abiding and productive members of society.
As a nation of immigrants, we keep in mind our unique position in the world. In many countries, governments feel the need to secure their borders in order to keep their own citizens from leaving. Here, we must secure the border to limit the large numbers of people who want to come here, to enjoy the benefits of our prosperity and our liberty.
We are all fortunate to live in a country that people clamor to get into. But that also poses a challenge, as we try to balance our desire to be open and welcoming with our need to be safe. Anyone alive on September 11th, 2001 knows the importance of securing our borders and keeping out terrorists, criminals, and others who mean us harm.
If millions of people sneak over our borders illegally that dishonors men and women like you, who have worked hard to become citizens and who have patiently endured a legal process that I know is not always easy.
Whatever might have motivated you, and those who came before you, to set out for this country and to become citizens, at bottom there is always the search for liberty. It is our well-proved commitment to liberty that most clearly defines us as a nation, and that most distinguishes us from the rest of the world. It is the reason people risk their lives to cross deserts and oceans to come here.
More than 60 years ago, a great American judge named Learned Hand tried to explain to a group of new citizens what liberty meant to him. He said, and I quote:
"The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias."
With the oath you've taken today, you have affirmed your commitment to the spirit that Learned Hand described.
Your fellow Americans are proud of all that you have accomplished and all that you have sacrificed to be here today. I hope that each of you will take advantage of the limitless opportunities this country has to offer.
I hope also that you will take some time today to celebrate with your family and friends. You have much to celebrate.
I congratulate you again, and I know your new country congratulates you too.