Seventy-two naturalized immigrants proudly held their hands over their hearts at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello Friday and pledged allegiance to America amid cheers from U.S. citizens who welcomed them — a stark contrast to the rising tensions nationwide in response to the surge of Central American immigrants crossing the U.S. border.
"You will be receiving the most precious commodity that our country can give to anyone in this unrivaled democracy — citizenship; citizenship in a country that Thomas Jefferson helped to conceive; citizenship in a country where you will have to a greater extent than any other country the freedom, protections and opportunities that will enable you to pursue your life's dreams and ambitions and citizenship that you can also pass along to your children," said keynote speaker David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group.
"For that, you are no doubt, grateful. You are obviously privileged. You also feel honored. You should be, but it is we, the current citizens of this country who should be grateful to you ... we are grateful and privileged, and honored because we know that it is immigrants who have made American the great and unique country, which is the clear envy of the free world," he said.
The Annual Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello, home of the former third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, has become a 52-year-long tradition in Charlottesville, Va., featuring a range of past speakers from musicians Dave Matthews to former President George W. Bush.
While telling the story of the signing of the Declaration of Independence during the 1776 Second Continental Congress, Judge Harvie Wilkinson III of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit quoted historian Gordon Wood who argued that during the revolution, "Americans saw themselves striving not only to make themselves free, but also to bring freedom to the whole world."
The judge opined that Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration at only 33 years old so that it would reflect "a youthful exuberance about world of possibility," and that the document was "grounded in Enlightenment principles, and, in particular, in the social contract theory of John Locke ... that governments existed to protect the lives, liberty, and property of their people, and that they were legitimate only as long as they fulfilled those ends."
Mr. Wilkinson conceded that as a product of its time, the Declaration demonstrates both irony and hypocrisy in its most famous five words that, "all men are created equal," arguing that:
The Declaration is a ringing indictment of oppression... and yet while denouncing the chains of tyranny imposed by Great Britain, many signers of the document forced just such shackles on the men and women they treated as no more than property ... so the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are not perfect ... and like the Declaration itself, America is not perfect, but it is great. It is up to you, our new citizens, to make it better.
Mr. Rubenstein also speculated on the meaning of those famous five words, adding that they are the most famous in the English language.
"He never clarified by what he meant by all men or created equal ... but whatever he meant, those words have been read to mean as I think they should have been, and as I believe Jefferson would have wanted them to them to be, that all people ... are entitled in this country by the force of law to be afforded equal freedoms, equal protections, and equal opportunities."
Mr. Rubenstein opined that these five words are at the heart of what has "propelled so many citizens of other countries ... to become citizens of this country ... than of any other country in the world."
Among the 72 new citizens sworn in from around the world was a Brazilian man serving as a firefighter in Fairfax County; a Venezuelan woman attending medical school in Chicago; a Kuwaiti man who volunteered as a translator for U.S. forces in Iraq during the liberation of Baghdad; and a Taiwanese woman teaching at the University of Virginia for nine years.
"I have always felt like the U.S. was home, and I am so happy that I can finally, really call America home," she told an applauding audience.
Glen E. Conrad, the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia who presided over the naturalization ceremony, congratulated the new citizens and happily reminded them that they now have the opportunity to serve in a capacity "that makes up one of the cornerstones of American justice."
Many longtime U.S. citizens in the audience who anticipated Mr. Conrad's punch line began laughing, and he smiled excitedly as he told the new citizens he looked forward to seeing them again one day in court when they fulfill their newest obligation as Americans: jury service.
"If called upon to do so, I trust you will do so willingly with an understanding of the importance of the jury process in this nation, the right to have one's case tried before one's peers. You're one of those peers now, and if asked to serve, I would hope each of our new citizens as well as those who have been here a little bit longer would do so joyfully and with an understanding of the importance of that very important service."
The new citizens were then awarded with a silver medal and certificate of naturalization and taken atop Montalto Mountain for a picnic as part of their day at Monticello.
• Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a legal analyst for the Washington Times.
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