Last Saturday, I delivered the keynote address at a naturalization ceremony held at Kenmore Middle School in Virginia. More than 400 immigrants from 76 countries became American citizens.
It was such an honor to share in that special moment, just two days before the beginning of Constitution Week.
Each year we recognize September 17 as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, to commemorate the signing of the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. And to reflect on what it means to be a citizen of the United States of America.
Citizenship Day has a long history. In 1940 Congress passed a resolution requesting the President to issue a proclamation each year for the public recognition of all who had attained the status of American citizenship. At the time, this day was known as "I Am an American Day."
Each person who swore their oath of citizenship on Saturday has a different story and will bring different contributions to our democracy.
But all of them came here to pursue the same thing: a better life for themselves and their children.
My parents charted a similar course. They met, and fell in love, in an American citizenship class. I owe the naturalization process so very much. It created my family.
My mother immigrated to this country from Nicaragua. My father grew up in Mexico. He worked as a farm worker, a railroad worker and a factory worker to give his family opportunities he never had. They raised seven children.
We grew up in a working-class neighborhood outside of Los Angeles in the shadows of polluted landfills and toxic dumps. My parents and my friends' parents went to work in conditions that were dirty and often unsafe.
Our family could not afford much, but we always had each other. And like many immigrant families, my parents made many sacrifices so we could achieve whatever our talents would allow.
Mom and dad raised me to believe in the American dream. They raised me to believe that if you worked hard and gave something back, you could do anything.
President Obama believes this, too. That's why he is working to build an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share and plays by the same set of rules. As the 25th U.S. Secretary of Labor-the first Latina to ever hold the position-it is my honor to serve in his administration.
My hero, President John F. Kennedy, once famously said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
I made sure to remind our fellow citizens of those simple yet profound words on Saturday. And that citizenship in this country is not just a collection of rights but also a set of responsibilities.
I am confident that, by being active in their communities and by working together with their neighbors, they too will add to the strength of our economy and of our nation as a whole.
To read the President’s Proclamation in honor of Citizenship and Constitution Day 2012 click here.
Hilda Solis is the Secretary of the Department of Labor