On Tuesday, I had the privilege of speaking to hundreds of new citizens at a naturalization ceremony held at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Va. It was an incredible experience — one that made me proud of our country’s well-earned reputation as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. Gathered in one place were 700 individuals from over 100 different countries, represented by different flags, different cultures and different systems of government. These 700 took an oath in unison and in one single moment they all became Americans.
Of course, their individual journeys to this day were much more unique, complicated and hard fought than could ever be captured in a moment. Some came from across the globe — from nations like Brazil, Russia, India, China, Ireland, Ghana and Afghanistan. Others came from our neighbors – Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Some of them are business owners, doctors, teachers, artists and engineers. And some are parents caring for America’s next generation.
Some are new citizens like Corporal Jorge Luis Cuji Villacis, who came here from Ecuador when he was 11 years old, went to school and then joined the U.S. Marine Corps because he wanted to make his family proud, serve this country and become a better person.
And what I found so inspiring about this ceremony is what it reaffirmed about this country. We are a nation bound together not by a shared race, a single ethnicity or a state-sanctioned religious faith. We ask neither that such traits be inherited nor left behind. Instead, our country is defined by our founding principles: freedom, equality and democracy. The idea that you are free to control your destiny and help shape the future of this nation, no matter where you came from, no matter who your ancestors are and no matter what you look like. More than a place on the map, that spirit is what the United States of America represents and it’s what these new citizens embody.
Becoming an American citizen and taking part in our shared story is a precious privilege that no one in that auditorium took for granted. So as we welcome these new partners to our bold experiment in self-government, we must work to improve the inefficient immigration system that hampered them, and so many other talented immigrants, from starting their lives here.
We know that we can improve that system by strengthening our borders, streamlining legal immigration, holding employers accountable and creating a firm but fair path to earned citizenship for those immigrants who are already contributing to our economy and society in so many ways.
That’s why we remain committed to working with Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reforms that will do justice to our immigration system and the hard working, talented individuals who come through that system seeking the privilege of becoming an American.
# Tony West is the Associate Attorney General for the Department of Justice