Sabra Isa (center), 36, who was born in Jordan, is one of 99 people from 33 countries to take the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony, to complete the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Tuesday, July 2,

Sabra Isa (center), 36, who was born in Jordan, is one of 99 people from 33 countries to take the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony to complete the process of becoming a U.S. citizen at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

‘I pledge allegiance’ to the true greatness of America

The president claims “America is full.” We say there’s still plenty of room for any newcomer willing to contribute to our country’s tapestry, knit together by a common belief in liberty, equality and opportunity.

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wo days ago, we watched as dozens of immigrant Chicagoans took the oath to become U.S. citizens — and we came away with a renewed belief in the power of our American ideals.

Our country is celebrating those ideals of freedom, opportunity and hope today, Independence Day. We will be joined by 99 new citizens from 33 countries who were sworn in Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants.

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After the ceremony, we witnessed our new fellow citizens shed tears of happiness and share long, celebratory hugs with family and friends. We watched as they shook hands with Chang and clustered around an American flag to take pictures, tightly clutching their citizenship certificates. We looked on as they milled in the hallway outside the courtroom, some of them checking again to make sure their certificate didn’t have any errors, that everything was really, truly in order, that the years of waiting had finally paid off.

We heard joy and relief in the voices of those we chatted with. They beamed as they talked about plans for a barbecue with friends, a picnic with the family, a trip to the park to watch fireworks — the typical American Fourth of July, celebrated for the first time as full-fledged Americans.

We came away from the experience with one overarching, humbling thought: America, for all its current and historical faults, remains a beacon of hope around the world.

Ofelia Peregrino, 61, who was born in Mexico, holds her naturalization certificate and cries after taking the oath of American citizenship at the Dirksen Federal Building on Tuesday, July 2.

Ofelia Peregrino, 61, who was born in Mexico, holds her naturalization certificate and cries after taking the oath of American citizenship at the Dirksen Federal Building on Tuesday, July 2.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chang spoke briefly before the swearing in. We’d like to quote from his speech, setting his words off in italics, and from some of the new citizens we spoke with. They said it best.

“You are an inspiration to those of us who already are citizens because your achievement — and how hard you had to work to attain it — reminds us that American citizenship must never be taken for granted; it must be cherished and embraced.”

Ahmed Hassan, a biology major at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told us it was “an honor” to finally become a citizen after immigrating here from Yemen with his family at age 10.

“I didn’t even know what America was. It took me six months to learn the language,” he told us. “Now, it means freedom, a safe place to express yourself, to get an education. … It’s not for everyone to become a citizen. It’s for those who want it, those who are willing to work hard.”

“Our Constitution declares, in its opening words, the most fundamental belief of our government: that ‘We the People’ establish the government. ‘We the People’ are the masters of government, not the other way around.”

Alex Christmas, who was born in Turkmenistan, dreamed for years of becoming an American citizen. In the country of his birth, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, a strongman president, not “we the people” runs things.

Christmas, who was lucky enough to land a job in the American embassy in Turkmenistan, finally made it to America in 2014.

What does it mean to him now?

“Freedom — that’s the main word,” he told us. “And diversity, a place where you see all kinds of people. ... It means a lot. I will be celebrating (the Fourth) as a citizen for the first time, and then my birthday right after that, on the 7th.”

Alex Christmas, 38, who was born in Turkmenistan, poses for a portrait near the American flag after taking the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony to complete the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Tuesd

Alex Christmas, 38, who was born in Turkmenistan, poses for a portrait near the American flag after taking the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony to complete the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“For every freedom the Constitution grants to you, there is a civic responsibility to your fellow citizens. You enjoy the right to due process and trial by jury; then you must serve on a jury, when called upon, to make that right a reality for your fellow citizens. You enjoy the right to speak your mind; then you must listen to your fellow citizens when they speak their mind. You enjoy the right to practice your religion; then you must respect the right of others to practice theirs.”

Citizens also have the right to vote, something Filipino-born Josephine Julian, who became a citizen Tuesday, and Kenyan-born Gama Aywa, who took the oath a few weeks ago, are looking forward to.

“It feels good,” Julian told us. “No more worrying about carrying my green card, having to show it wherever I go.”

“It is the goal of every foreigner to become a citizen,” Aywa told us emphatically. “No one understands what we go through, the struggle, the journey.”

Almost 757,000 immigrants became American citizens in 2018, a sharp rise from 707,000 in 2017 and 653,000 in 2014, according to data from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service.

They enrich our country, though President Trump would have us believe otherwise.

Our president claims that “America is full.”

But we say that there is still plenty of room for any newcomer willing to contribute to our country’s tapestry, knit together by a common belief in liberty, equality and opportunity.

Long after Trump’s vanity show of military tanks on the Washington Mall, we believe Americans will continue to celebrate the true spirit of our nation, as expressed on Tuesday by 99 grateful new citizens in a courtroom in downtown Chicago.

“This is the greatest country in the world,” Aywa of Kenya told us. “Everyone wants to be where the greatest is.”

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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