No part of the ceremony suggested that new immigrants sworn in as American citizens should go pose by the flag. Yet many did, lining up, waiting their turn—and after all the years they've waited, what was a few minutes more?
Not all of the 145 sworn in Monday had their pictures taken. Some went straight to register to vote. But many did, dozens, proudly showing off their certificates of citizenship. They posed for photos by the flag in the third floor auditorium of the government building at 101 W. Congress, and downstairs in the lobby, next to the big photo of Barack Obama. Their friends and loved ones took the shots, but sometimes they called upon strangers. A family from Mongolia, whose 22-year-old wore a uniform of a U.S. Marshall cadet, pressed an iPhone into the hands of a Chicago Tribune photographer and he gamely snapped their picture.
They had just heard Carol Cook, an immigrant from Scotland and the principal violist at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, play the Star Spangled Banner on her 200-year-old viola — I'll have more about her in the Sun-Times later this week. Then they stood, held their hands over their hearts for the anthem, then later raised their right hands and renounced "all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate or sovereignty."
If any were conflicted about disowning their former homes, the lands of the birth, they didn't show it. They beamed. They held bouquets of flowers, or the hands of their children. They wore their best suits, or dresses that looked hand-sewn.
The people who are conflicted about this are not the immigrants, but longtime Americans, many of them, who often forget that every last one of us, if we follow the thread of our ancestry back long enough, arrived here from somewhere, filled with hope, strangers in a strange land, trying to begin their lives anew. Not the Native Americans, of course, who were always here — though even they, if you dial back the millennia, are thought to have migrated over across the Bering Strait at some point in pre-history, though long enough ago to count as being here forever.
You would think that, sharing this common bit of family history, there would be fewer Americans agitated about immigrants. You would think they would see the fate of nations that resist immigration, such as Japan, and the terrible demographic price they're paying, their sinking population, whole towns emptied out, and would celebrate immigration as the lifesaver it is for the United States. A nation built by immigrants, now saved by immigrants. But prejudice blinds, or rather, is clung to by the blind, the philosophy of the stupid, and they look around and see only the murky haze of their myopic fears, and not the reality in front of them. When you actually see what's here, on the third floor of 101 W. Congress, the joy and readiness, you want to cry, a little, at the beauty of it.
The United States of American became a great country because our fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers came and made it great. It's a great country still because we came and helped it continue to be great. It will go on being a great country in the future because ... is this really such a hard sentence to finish? ... people coming now and in years to come will make it great. They will continue to come, and the prejudice they often find will be just one more obstacle to triumph over, and not the largest obstacle either.
"Throughout our history, the lasting contributions of immigrants have shaped our national identity, formed the idea of the American dream and built upon the foundation of freedom and equality established by our founders," Michelle Wong, an immigration officer at the Department of Homeland Security, told the newest Americans. "The bonds of citizenship are unrestricted. Every citizen is an equal member in the American family."
The people who most need to hear and understand that message, alas, were not in the room on Monday.