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Saul Young/Knoxville News Sentinel

A million unborn tomorrows

Our current immigration wave is the seed of our future

Issue: "The ABCs of C Street," Aug. 29, 2009

Cynics among us will say it's an apt way to start life as an American: waiting in line.

That's what 146 citizen hopefuls did last month at a swearing-in ceremony I attended at the U.S. district courthouse in Knoxville, Tenn. Under strict instructions they began arriving at 11 a.m. After passing through security, they waited at a little white desk to turn in their green cards, and immigration officials in turn handed them a seat number. They filed into the red cushioned rows of the auditorium to wait some more-two hours, in fact, for most of them.

They came in dresses, pants, suits, and shirtsleeves-young, old, pregnant, and one in a wheelchair. They came from 35 countries and bore names like Felicia, Julip, Louis, Ravi, Maritz, Marguerite, Elizabeth, Ninchu, Younis, Babylon, and Elsadid. Half a dozen had filed papers to have their name changed along with taking the oath, and four filed to take what are called "modified oaths." For religious reasons these would not agree to bear arms on behalf of the United States.

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If you're like me you've never known or have forgotten that part. In fact, the Oath of Allegiance these 146 rose to take (except for the man in the wheelchair) was mostly news to me. They promised to renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty; to defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; to perform noncombatant service in the armed forces when required by law; to perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by law; and to take the oath freely . . . so help them God.

By the time each was pronounced a fellow citizen, my cynicism had drained away. This was due not only to their apparent earnestness but also to the presiding U.S. magistrate, the Hon. C. Clifford Shirley Jr. He began the proceedings with, "Please forgive me," and went on to apologize in advance for pronouncing names wrong. Do judges do this in other countries? Do foreigners regularly join ranks in towns large and small across the land of other nations and do they receive this welcome? "You honor us with your decision to become citizens," Shirley said.

Shirley quoted Woodrow Wilson, who spoke a century ago of the "constant rebirth" of the United States in receiving immigrants. He said freedom carries not only privileges but responsibilities. He introduced Louis Vega, a 53-year-old Cuban-American who fled Castro's advance and is now a U.S. probation officer. Vega told the newly naturalized that his father gave up everything in Cuba so that "we could excel as human beings through the gifts God has given us." He spoke about his own Catholic faith and told them "exercise your freedom, work hard, and don't let fear interfere."

By the time the new citizens filed across the stage to shake Shirley's hand and to receive their certificates, it was easy to think well of them, to marvel at their journeys, and to remember what a remarkable refuge this country is. "You who have been born in America, I wish I could make you understand what it is like not to be an American-not to have been an American all your life-and then suddenly with the words of a man in flowing robes to be one, for that moment and forever after," said Armenian immigrant George Magar Mardikian. "One moment you belong with your fathers to a million dead yesterdays-the next you belong with America to a million unborn tomorrows."

Mardikian nearly starved to death in a Turkish prison camp after his father was killed in the Armenian genocide. In the 1930s he opened the world-renowned restaurant Omar Khayyam's in San Francisco, and through his work as an army food service consultant in World War II earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom. He celebrated his birthday on July 24-the day he first laid eyes on the Statue of Liberty.

America is growing at a rate of 1.5 million immigrants per year-a rate that could double our population by the end of the century. That concerns an unlikely confederation of environmentalists, strict constructionists who say the Constitution names no right to immigration, border vigilantes, and average folks who'd like the cashier to speak more English. But the haven the United States continues to be is one built by both foreign- and U.S.-born. And the open road to legal naturalization is a ministry opportunity and a foreign policy tool we should not overlook.
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