As we close on the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, I have my own story of an immigrant family's passage. It opens with the birthday lunch we held last winter for an aunt turning 80 -- the twin sister of my mother, who died 10 years ago. With the capacity of older people to bring to life incidents long lain fallow, Aunt Francie, under our nudging, fetched up a single clear image of Ellis Island 75 years after the fact. She and her sister were standing on either side of their mother, clinging to her skirts and peering anxiously about them to spot their father, who had left Russia a few years earlier and then had sent for his family.
I thought: What wonder and anticipation and uncertainty must have been swimming in the heads of those two little 5-year-old girls as they stood in the shadow of the immense symbol of a beckoning America and waited for a father they could scarcely have remembered. He arrived, and a new life began with a mixture of pain and joy, hardship and achievement, that is by now the familiar stuff of the American dream.
*It was a marvelous little tableau, never before recalled, and we at lunch sipped and laughed and misted up appropriately. Fortunately, it didn't end with that exercise in nostalgia. For chance soon brought an invitation from Judge L. Leonard Ruben of Montgomery County to give a little talk to a naturalization ceremony at his court in Rockville. The notion of an immigrant's son, one so recently reminded of a parent's arrival, having the opportunity to welcome the latest immigrants was irresistible.
Prabjot Kaur Mukherjee was first on the list -- a thrilling list -- of "candidates for citizenship." Then Pi-Chun Lee, Pi-Hsiu Lee, Victor Lantang, Sukanya Venkatraman, Vui Van Le, Leverde-Soto Nicolas, Nestor Arenas, Rosa Amelia Victoria Medrano-Melgar, Jaime . . . As you might expect, the names were mostly Asian and Hispanic, ethnically removed from the Europeans who landed around the turn of the century, but in spirit and -- to judge by the row upon row of grave and expectant faces in the courtroom -- in mood not removed at all.
These good and unoffending people were then caused to sit silent, for some minutes, while they were solemnly addressed by someone with at least a faint comprehension of where they were coming from. The theme was that they were becoming part of a great nation but they were already part of a great community, the one to which the speaker's family had belonged, the community of those who did not happen to be born American but who had chosen to become American.
Americans by choice in a country that is preeminently the country of choice in a series of deepening ways: the country that more people have chosen to come to than any other; the country that has chosen under heavy pressure to keep itself open to many who would choose to come here; the country where more than anywhere else citizens choose their political and economic destinies.
Choice, of course, is burden as well as privilege. Some of those in the courtroom were bound to find disappointment on these shores, on top of the heartbreak many of them had already known when they uprooted themselves in their birthplaces and thought audaciously to come to a strange land. For many of them their new life would mean hard work and an uncertain livelihood, one kind of loneliness as they looked back at the persons and places left behind and perhaps another kind of loneliness, one mixed with pride, to see how their own children would yet make their way.
I looked out over the crowd in the courtroom and felt awe and gratitude at the courage of all those who choose America. It seemed to me that, whatever opportunity the country would offer them, they would more than pay it back with the service that immigrants have always done for the country: to help make it true again to its founding ideals, to engage it in a continuing act of renewal. My mother had done that, I reflected, and so would Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Asghar Parhizkar, Kuo-ho Wang, Rene Joseph Richard Pruneau and the rest of that glorious and, I hoped, unending parade.