Today I Am a U.S. Citizen

I arrived in the United States on a student visa in 2003.

Last Wednesday morning I joined over 800 other immigrants to the United States in taking the Oath of Allegiance and becoming a U.S. citizen. It is quite something to behold – a sea of people of all ethnicities and backgrounds, from young infants to gray-haired seniors, sharing a moment of great significance to each of their lives. Some have waited a great many years to reach this moment, while others have been able to reach this day in a shorter amount of time. One woman from Ghana sitting to my right told me it had taken about six years for her. I arrived in the United States on a student visa in 2003. I’ve worked my way from there through two rounds of temporary religious worker visas, then a green card (permanent resident card) that I held for these past six years, and finally to citizenship, 14 years after I began living here full-time.

My story is relatively straightforward, and I am lucky, as a member of the clergy, to have a profession that has its own category for processing work papers in the United States. Seated around me were nurses, shift workers, bankers, consultants, elderly parents whose adult children (already U.S. citizens) were helping to take care of them, and so many others. The man to my left had gotten off his work shift at midnight and has a 45-minute drive home from work every day. We were both feeling a little sleepy before the ceremony began. I, having gotten up at 4:15 am to catch the first flight out from Baltimore where I had been attending the same Women Rabbi’s conference that Debbi Bravo wrote about recently. And the coincidence of timing felt like no coincidence at all.

On the last night of that conference, a significant group of these women rabbis gathered on the street across from our hotel with signs and battery-powered tea lights, for a brief vigil. In doing so we joined with a great many others around the country who were participating in vigils coordinated by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS once focused its efforts on helping Jews to come to the U.S. and provided aid to help them settle in and become successful. In more recent years it has become the Jewish voice that serves the needs of immigrants and refugees who come to the U.S. from all over the world. They have been particularly vocal about the plight of refugees, so desperately trying to escape war-torn, violent, situations. HIAS helped people across the country come together for vigils that called upon us to open our hearts with compassion, and the gates of this great country, to enable more of these refugees to reach these shores. Why on June 6th?

June 6, 1939. The day the St. Louis ship was forced to turn back to Europe after the United States denied entry to hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. Of the 937 Jewish refugees on board, 254 would be killed in concentration camps. Those lives could have been saved if only the U.S. had opened its doors to those refugees. On the 78th anniversary of that tragic day, vigils were held across the country to say: Never again. (from the HIAS website)

The juxtaposition of these two events – a vigil remembering when our people were not allowed in, the very day before I was granted the gift of U.S. citizenship – was not lost on me. The blessing of today is one that comes with both rights and responsibilities. I now have a vote (as soon as I get my registration in!), which means I now have more of a voice. I can now call my representatives in Congress. And with that voice, I must continue to speak up for those whose voices cannot be heard, or whose voices are ignored. I understand the privilege that has enabled me to make my life here. There are those whose plight is truly desperate – and we must not stop doing our part to help some of them arrive safely on these shores. As the presiding judge told us today, after we had taken the Oath of Allegiance, the United States is remarkable for being a country that takes in immigrants from all over the world. Not unique, but remarkable in a world where there are many countries that do far less. The United States is the land that it is because it was built by immigrants. The judge reflected on how the life experiences, the talents, the variety of perspectives, that come with us from all of our varied backgrounds, infuses this country with creativity and innovation.

Today, I took my place in that remarkable history. Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, Shehecheyanu, v’kiyamanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh – Blessed is the Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who gives us life, who sustains us, and who enables us to reach this moment.

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