Thank you, Director [Leon] Rodriguez, for those kind words – and congratulations on your recent appointment as Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It’s a pleasure to welcome you back to the Justice Department where you spent so much of your career – experience which undoubtedly prepared you well for the new role in which you are already excelling. I’d also like to thank your colleagues at every level of that critical agency for all that they’ve done to bring us together today, here in the Great Hall. And I’d like to thank each of the dedicated public servants, distinguished guests, and proud family members and friends who have taken the time to be with us today. It’s a privilege to share this special occasion with you. And it’s a great pleasure to join you in celebrating the remarkable men and women before me – as we congratulate them on becoming the newest citizens of the United States.
This morning, we welcome 73 people from 52 countries around the world. We welcome students from Afghanistan and Burkina Faso; an economist from China and a software engineer from Iran; a realtor from the United Kingdom and an environmental engineer from Malaysia.
Many of you have confronted great adversity, and overcome tremendous obstacles, to reach this auspicious moment. And you have persevered through difficult – and in some cases dangerous – circumstances. One of our new citizens escaped a decade of brutal civil war in Sierra Leone in order to seize a second chance at a better life. Another left behind her parents, siblings, and friends in Zimbabwe so she could begin her own family here in America – and give her son a future filled with opportunities. Like many of you, until a short time ago, she had never dreamed of even visiting the United States, saying once that “that dream was just too big for [her] imagination.” Yet this morning, she – and 72 other extraordinary people – became U.S. citizens.
Like so many who have come to our shores throughout America’s history, I know that every one of you has struggled and sacrificed in order to earn the right to call this country your home. And although the paths that led you to this Great Hall today are unique, your stories are in many ways as old as our Republic. You follow in the footsteps of millions of courageous immigrants who have gone before you – who braved conflict and crossed vast oceans; who fled injustice, intolerance and oppression; who worked hard to gain a foothold on American soil in pursuit of an American dream.
I, myself, am a product of this pursuit. While I was born and raised in New York City, I grew up in a household – and in a neighborhood – of immigrants. My father and all four of my grandparents came to this country many years ago from the island of Barbados. They brought with them Bajan traditions and values that helped to shape my upbringing. They taught my brother and me the importance of family and education. And they instilled in us the timeless values of tolerance, respect, integrity, and service.
When I think of the duties, the rights, and the weighty responsibilities of American citizenship – responsibilities that are, as of this moment, entrusted to each of you – I think of my father – for whom I am named. Although his journey did not begin here, his dedication to the American Dream ran so deep that he put his life on the line to defend it the moment it was threatened – volunteering to serve in the United States Army during the Second World War. He was always proud to wear the uniform of his country – a uniform he treasured throughout his life. And he never lost faith in the greatness of his country even when it did not reciprocate his devotion; he never stopped believing in the promise of this nation, even when that promise was obscured by discrimination and injustice.
My father always taught my brother and me, by word and by deed, that this country’s true greatness lives in the power of every citizen to help chart its future course. And I know that, like generations of immigrants before and since, that steadfast belief guided him, throughout his life, to take principled action.
Such is the story of countless people who have come to this country from around the world, driven by little more than the hope of a brighter future for themselves and their children. Such is the story of the United States – a nation that immigrants from all parts of the globe, including the founders who established our system of government and drafted our Constitution, have had a critical role in building and sustaining it to this very day. After all, I am mindful this morning that the statues behind me in this Great Hall were fashioned by an immigrant from Germany. The eighteen famous panels which surround the staircase leading up to this Hall were painted by an immigrant from Canada. And from those who built this Department to those who serve it faithfully every day – from America’s greatest businesses, to our most successful enterprises, to our most enduring achievements and symbols of national pride – our identity has always been shaped by men and women, from every corner of the globe, who see in this country their own dream for self-determination, their own pursuit of happiness, and their own hope for equality, opportunity, and justice for all.
I am confident that the new Americans in this room will continue that enduring legacy. Many of you are already making remarkable contributions – by volunteering in your communities, starting new businesses, and even, like my father, joining the U.S. military. And I want you all to know that, here at the Justice Department, we are firmly committed to protecting your rights to do just that. We have long worked with new citizens to ensure that you are accorded the freedoms and opportunities due to every American. Our Civil Rights Division’s Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices enforces a law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of citizenship status and national origin. Our Executive Office for Immigration Review ensures that immigration cases are adjudicated both fairly and expeditiously. And our Office of Special Counsel has a hotline dedicated to helping U.S. citizens and other work-authorized individuals if they are ever discriminated against in employment.
After all, we know from our history that our success as a nation is just as dependent on the contributions of Americans-by-choice as it is on those of Americans-by-birth. And we have often seen that the source of one’s potential – and one’s power to improve and strengthen this country – comes not from birth or bloodline, but from an abiding belief in American ideals and a steadfast commitment to our founding principles.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen all too clearly in recent headlines and heartbreaking stories, the American Dream remains out of reach for far too many. The unfolding situation along our southern border vividly underscores the importance of working together to strengthen our immigration system. As Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole made clear during a recent visit to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s McAllen Station, in Texas, the Department of Justice and other federal agencies are working around the clock to address the increasing number of migrants – and particularly young people – who are arriving in this country. We are refocusing immigration court resources and seeking new funding to fulfill this urgent need. We are doing everything in our power to combat transnational crime and confront the threats posed by criminal gangs. And we are providing technical assistance to Central American countries – so that we can help identify and hold responsible all those who exploit innocent families and smuggle immigrants into the United States.
Today, I’m calling on Congress to provide the critical support that President Obama has requested to address this urgent situation in a way that is both responsible and humane. And going forward, I remain committed to working with leaders from both parties to reform and modernize America’s immigration system.
Immigration reform is not only a moral imperative – it’s an economic necessity. Especially in this rapidly-changing era of global competition, we must ensure that this country can continue to attract ambitious, highly-driven men and women like the new citizens before me: the best workers and the brightest minds; the top innovators and educators; the most talented engineers and entrepreneurs. Now more than ever, we need your skills, your ideas, your inspiration, and your idealism – so we can continue to preserve and expand the promise of the American dream for generations to come.
That’s why I am both proud and humbled to be among the first to officially welcome each of you as a new member of the American family. Whether you began your journeys in China or India – in Egypt or the United Kingdom – you remind us today that we are not, and have never been, a country of one culture, one color, or one creed. On the contrary: we are and will forever be a nation infused with the influences of the world; a nation whose diversity constitutes its greatest strength; and a nation at once united by our common ideals, respectful of our proud past, and bound together in our enduring pursuit of a more perfect union.
I am honored to join you in this pursuit. I congratulate you, once again, on this extraordinary occasion. And I thank you for allowing me to share it with you.
At this time, I’d like to invite one of our new citizens – Cecelia Mahlunge – to conclude our ceremony by leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance.