Judge Sarah Evans Barker delivered the remarks below to the 68 new citizens during a naturalization ceremony Nov. 17, shortly after the nation’s recent elections.
For more than 30 years, whenever I have had the privilege of presiding over a naturalization ceremony such as this, I typically have delivered upbeat, hopeful remarks to the new citizens that focused on the array of wonderful opportunities that await them now that they had become full-fledged Americans. Today, I want to talk about your responsibilities as new citizens. In light of the turbulent events in recent weeks which played out as part of the political campaigns and were characterized by some really ugly, divisive and demeaning words and hate-filled, violence-tinged name-calling, your responsibilities as new citizens have become more important than ever. You will now be called upon to do your parts to help build and maintain our country’s best values and highest principles and historic traditions.
In a family, and you are now becoming part of the American family, we give each other permission to conduct honest conversations with one another. So, I will be candid with you. This is a challenging and sobering time in the life of our country. In this time of political change, as the peaceful transfer of power is underway, there is a feeling of unsteadiness and uncertainty among us about the future. The recently concluded campaigns laid bare a variety of disagreements across our nation, to use President Obama’s phrase.
The harsh words that have been spoken over the past few months were indefensible and unkind, testing the strength of the ties that hold us together as a country. I imagine that many of you in particular felt the sting of these attacks and heard them in personal terms. The qualities long associated with our country in defining the ways we strive to treat one another — with fairness, tolerance, compassion, equality, civility and freedom — are likely the very things that caused you to choose to come here to live your lives and raise your families and pursue your vocations and to share your best gifts. Lately, these qualities seem to be in short supply. I can’t defend or excuse such attacks — I, too, felt their sting and regretted the fear that they engendered — but today, as we gather on this special day, I hope maybe I can restore your hope and calm your fears and renew your sense of confidence.
The first thing I want to say is this: despite the recent barbed remarks, ours is still a country that values diversity. We still hold dear the values of tolerance, brotherhood, equality, goodwill, fairness and the rule of law. Most Americans are people of decency and respect; most are people who hold fast to our best traditions while looking forward with hope to a better future for ourselves and our children. Don’t be distracted by the noise and clamor of the few who would cause you to think otherwise. There are far more Americans who will welcome you into our communities and homes and lives than seek to exclude you. Most Americans empathize with their fellow citizens, especially those who have been subjected to hardship and cruelty and undeserved deprivations and stand willing to join the struggle for justice for all, especially those who have long had it denied.
Secondly, your best road — every person’s best road — to a good life in this country is the one that allows you to focus on opportunities to establish meaningful, kind, generous personal relationships with the people you meet and come to know, whether in your workplace, neighborhood, religious community, civic organization, service clubs and through political affiliations. One-on-one always works best. The friendships you create will create feelings of mutual respect and support for one another. So make friends every chance you get. And you know the old adage: to have a friend you must be a friend. Be a friend.
Thirdly, try as best you can to give others the benefit of the doubt. Assume each person you meet is a person of goodwill, who possesses many of the same hopes and fears you do. Try to leave room for their differences in the same way you want others to honor your uniqueness.
Fourthly, remember that we Americans are a resilient people, and this includes you, now, too. Our institutions of government are strong and our society is much bigger and greater than any small group of people who have chosen to test our stamina. Each of us has to resolve to join the effort, doing our part to speak up as policy is being formulated and ideas are being aired. On the nettlesome issues surrounding immigration policy in the United States, no group of American citizens is better qualified to contribute to this debate than you are. Help our elected leaders figure out workable, humane, fair and just solutions. Help our policymakers shape a fair and just narrative that works for all our people.
This is how democracy works — and sometimes it works really well, sometimes not so well, depending on each individual’s point of view. I know that some of you are coming from countries where there are no elections, where leaders are put in office without regard to the wishes of the citizenry or where elections do not occur without violence and upheaval. That’s not our way — for better or for worse. We have choices and we make choices and we accept the results of the majority as to their choices. Our country has faced many challenges and withstood many forms of dissent and disagreement in our past and we are still here, no doubt stronger than ever because of our compromises and accommodations of conflict. We all have a responsibility every day to help build the America we want to live in together.
Lastly, don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t be overwhelmed or down-hearted, don’t give up on your dreams or lose sight of all the good and important things that brought you to these shores and to this day. After all you have been through, for God’s sake, don’t lose heart now. Keep your optimism and your joy and your sense of gratitude. We need those things now more than ever. I heard on the radio this morning as I drove to the courthouse a line that is worth sharing with you here: Joy, it was said, is an act of resistance. So, be joyful!
Near the end of her concession speech, which she delivered the day after her defeat in her race to be president, Hillary Clinton said these words:
“I am so grateful for our country and for all it has given me. I count my blessings every single day that I am an American, and I still believe, as deeply as I ever have, that if we stand together and work together with respect for our differences, strengthen our convictions and love for this nation, our best days are still ahead of us.”
If Hillary Clinton can express words of hope and gratitude such as these in the aftermath of her defeat after her long and very hard-fought campaign, you, ladies and gentlemen, should be able to say the same things as you embark on your new life as citizens of this great country. So, I welcome you today to your new life as citizens of the United States and remind you in the clearest words I know to say to you: You are welcome here! You are welcome here! Now, it is up to you to assume the important responsibilities of citizenship, which means to join the struggle to make this country as good and kind and just and welcoming as you imagined and hoped and perhaps prayed that it would be, when you first embarked on your journey to become a citizen. I say again, you are welcome here. Don’t ever forget that, and if anyone ever challenges you on that, you tell them Judge Barker said so on the day you became a citizen.•
Judge Sarah Evans Barker is a senior judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. She was appointed to the federal bench in 1984. The opinions expressed are those of the author.