- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 3, 2005

It’s June 2004. I am in a large room on the second floor of the George Mason University campus in Arlington that has been taken over for the afternoon by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. What happens here will change the way in which my family celebrates the Fourth of July.

After a more than 10-year wait, all six of us will be American citizens. My Spanish wife, whom I brought to Washington from Madrid in 1994, is taking the oath, along with 155 other immigrants from 56 countries. I will no longer be living with a “registered alien.” Feeling somewhat blase about it, I came here to support my wife but am preoccupied over a flight later this afternoon and a series of speeches I have to give. I have not, however, forgotten the little American flags for our children to wave and add a festive air to the proceedings.

The Citizenship and Immigration Service handles things well. The presiding official, before administering the oath, tells his own family’s experience. Both sets of grandparents had come from Europe and settled in the Midwest. He had, he says, never suffered a day of want nor had he been preferred or set back on account of his religious beliefs or political preferences. With some hard work and respect for the law, this heritage is now yours, he says.



As the names of the 56 countries are called out, groups of people stand up as if a ripple is spreading through the room, or like a wave at a sports event.

Frank Capra could not have choreographed it better. Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina,China, Ethiopia, France, Iraq, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, on and on, and, of course, Spain. It takes one’s breath away. I did not expect to be impressed, but the sheer breadth of it stuns me. All these people here from the far-flung corners of the earth ready to say, “So help me God.” Is there another room like this anywhere else in the world where something like this could happen?

After the oath, each individual parades up front for pictures and stops by the Daughters of the American Revolution table to receive a little American flag very much like the kind I have brought. Elated, I walk out of the room down the hall, carrying one of my children’s flags.

An older man, who appears to be South Asian from his dress, complexion and wispy beard, comes directly up to me, smiles and shakes my hand, as if he knows me. Somewhat confused, I say, “congratulations” to him. However, it is he who is congratulatingme.This stranger’s eyes beam welcome. My wife catches up and asks, “Do you know this man? What’s happening?” “No,” I say, “but it’s all right. We are all Americans now and he just welcomed me here.”

My own grandparents came from Ireland, a land not nearly as distant in space or custom as the country from which this man comes. Yet, confident and joyous, he wants to make me feel comfortable. There is a kind of greatness here.

The fact that my own family’s roots do not go back very far does not make me feel less American; it makes me feel more American. I think of my nearest neighbors, who are Vietnamese boat people.

The other day at the Knights of Columbus swimming pool in Falls Church, I saw several faces whose profiles could have come from ancient Inca figurines. These Latin American kids were playing with a brother and sister of Asian origin. A young boy with the royal visage of a Benin bronze scampered up a chain-link fence to help a child recover its toy.

Nearby was a family originally from Portugal. No one was the slightest bit self-conscious about this extraordinary melange. At some point, all these people were in a room like this one in Arlington. In what other place in the world, I wondered, could you, with the simple declaration of an oath, cross the threshold into a country to which you are not native and be told, “Welcome home?”

In the end, as much as it means to her, I think I am more affected by this ceremony than my wife is. I see in concrete action what I have always deeply believed — “that all men are created equal.” What other than that proposition could account for what I witness? What else could make it possible? Blase, was I? How dare I have not remembered? I am proud to have been mistaken for someone who has just pledged his allegiance to this country.

Robert R. Reilly, a former director of the Voice of America, is chairman of the Committee for Western Civilization.

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