Rebecca Shi was 10 years old when her mother and father, both aspiring doctors, emigrated from China to the United States.
They were lucky enough to be college students at the end of the cultural revolution. Instead of planting rice and potatoes in the Chinese countryside, they took the MCATs. Her father was accepted to Harvard Medical School. Rebecca and her mom followed him to Boston.
“My father and I received our green cards. We quickly became U.S. citizens. But the attorney we had at the time made terrible mistakes on my mother’s application, and she was put on deportation and she was undocumented for 19 years,” Shi, executive director of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, recalled Monday.
Choking back tears, Shi said, “Even without status, my mother worked in Chinese restaurants. And the tips that she earned put me through the University of Chicago. This is why I became active in immigration reform — to help my mother.”
On Monday, Shi told her moving story at a naturalization ceremony in the City Council chambers for 25 new U.S. citizens from 15 different countries.
The always-emotional ceremony took on even greater meaning against the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s stalled travel ban and the president’s promise to substitute a replacement executive order that likely targets the same seven countries.
Well aware that a replacement is coming, Shi gave the new citizens a “homework” assignment.
She urged them to get involved to help the 11 million undocumented immigrants who “lie awake” at night “terrified that federal agents will find them or their parents or their children, demand their papers and take them away” from their jobs, homes and families.
“Your job is to make our democracy bigger and more equal. Register to vote. Vote in every election — in the primaries, in the mid-terms and in the general. Stand with elected officials who stand with us. Put your hat in the ring. Run for office,” Shi said.
“This is your homework and your life’s work. Your vote is your voice for people who do not have one. Your active participation is required to enlarge our democracy to, hopefully one day include the people who will lie awake tonight with fear.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel echoed those instructions after reiterating the now familiar story of his immigrant grandfather’s frightening flight to Chicago from the pogroms of Eastern Europe a century ago.
“You have walked through a door. That door is a door into the land of opportunity. You have a special obligation now — not just to your family, but to reach back beyond that door frame to another hand and pull another person through that door of opportunity,” Emanuel said.
“I encourage all of you, as Rebecca did, to take up the mantle of citizenship–not just rights, but responsibility. I ask for your voice to be heard, your vote to be cast, your leadership and participation to be felt by making sure that this country at this time stays true to its ideals and its values. Your voice is never more important.”
“The political winds may change,” the mayor added, “but our values and our ideals as a country are constant. . . . Each one of you come from a different place. Each of you have a different story. But today, your place is our place. Your story is now our story, the American story.”