Remarks by Taylor Branch to New U.S. Citizens

Published on 05 October 2015 by in General, Speaking Engagements

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White House naturalization ceremony to commemorate the 50th
anniversary of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act

Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Indian Treaty Room
Washington, D.C.

Taylor Branch at the podium

At the podium with (l-r) Cecilia Munoz, Director, White House Domestic Policy Council; Alejandro Mayorkas, Deputy Secretary, Department of Homeland Security; and Leon Rodriguez, Director, US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Congratulations and welcome, fellow citizens! Let me thank Cecilia Munoz from the White House Domestic Council, Alejandro Mayorkas from Homeland Security, and Leon Rodriguez from USCIS among the gracious officials who have allowed me to share another thrilling ceremony like this, when people born around the globe formally join our Constitutional compact to uphold freedom in self-government.

Your moment is special for me many times over—personally, patriotically, and professionally. My sister Cherry, a Korean War orphan, has not enjoyed cultural peers in the United States because our laws virtually forbade immigration from Asia. Indeed, my father had to flirt with civil disobedience by taking his first, long, international flight, on prop-planes of the 1950s, to bring home a malnourished toddler from a remote village near the Korean Demilitarized Zone, on a dare, without approved papers. Not until my sister finished college did immigrant Korean families begin reaching Atlanta. My dad, a dry cleaner, came to know several industrious ones in that business.

So immigration blessed us with Cherry in spite of the old immigration policy, long before I knew anything about the 50-year-old Reform Act we celebrate today. Many Americans still know very little about that historic law. You may be familiar with the origins from your application process, but I have been asked to review for you its central place in our Constitutional history.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 grew directly from momentum built by the modern civil rights movement, in the era of Dr. Martin Luther King. Having been enthralled to study and write about that history for nearly 40 years, I can assure you the 1965 law was difficult to pass. Some called it a miracle. Anti-civil-rights forces filibustered to preserve restrictions that had choked down immigration from all but a few countries in northern Europe, excluding most of the world. Senator Edward Kennedy said political success was unimaginable until 1964, when civil rights cracked open the gate. Even so, President Lyndon Johnson had to cajol, wheedle, and cuss. “Where’s my blankety-blank immigration bill?” he yelled day and night. As full-fledged citizens, you may be entitled now to hear his actual profane words, but not from me here in this dignified space.

President Johnson’s allies pushed immigration reform through Congress only a month after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, breaking Senate filibusters against the two bills by almost identical landslide votes. Then on October 3rd, fifty years ago Saturday, President Johnson stood beneath the Statue of Liberty in New York to correct what he called “a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American Nation…the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system.” With his signature, the 1965 Act abolished that pretension to an ethnic empire. “We can now believe,” he declared, “that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.”

These are ringing words of freedom. They affirm that the United States is founded not on any language or ethnic identity, but on the pioneer ideal of equal citizenship embodied in the Constitution’s first three words: “We the People.” A few historians like me have proclaimed the 1965 Act a third pillar of democratic fulfillment from the civil rights era, along with Voting Rights and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You are a testament to that ideal. No other nation holds naturalization ceremonies quite like this one.

And yet, the law that brings you here lacks public appreciation for its impact and promise. There is no Martin Luther King of immigration reform—nor any landmark anniversary on par with Selma and the March on Washington. Our immigration stance, which embraces applicants worldwide, earns nothing like the stature it deserves here in the United States. Critics still ignore or belittle the 1965 law, branding it merely a Cold War measure to admit more refugees from Communism.

There remains an underside to American performance for immigrants, legal and otherwise. Even on this happy day—perhaps especially on this happy day—we should pause briefly to fortify hope by acknowledging reality. I would be shocked if most of you do not suffer moments of isolation, doubt, and rejection, not only from Americans by birth but from members of other immigrant groups. The United States has not reached its perfect Union. We must seek to understand flaws from the past in order to overcome them for the future.

The very first naturalization law, which established in 1790 the oath and other features of today’s ceremony, required an aspiring immigrant to be “a free white person.” For more than a century, as our upstart nation grew slowly into a world power, nativists labored to place the “white person” standard within some scientific hierarchy of races, always with white people on top. This ruling conceit culminated in signal embarrassments for three consecutive years.

In 1922, the Supreme Court unanimously refused the citizenship application of one Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant of 28 years’ legal residency, on the ground that his light skin did not meet an objective test of membership in “the Caucasian race.” Promptly in 1923, however, the Court confronted an applicant whose experts testified that Punjabi descent made him Caucasian along with certain Polynesians, Hamites, and others. In United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind [261 U.S. 204 (1923)], our Supreme Court abruptly reversed course, again unanimously, once science failed to support popular prejudice. Spurning what they called the previous year’s “speculations of the ethnologist,” the Justices denied naturalization to Thind by formulating a new legal standard of whiteness to be based on public opinion, “interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man.”

In 1924, Congress debated the Court’s floundering definitions. Theories clashed over basic racial categories, let alone details, with eminent social scientists counting variously three, five, eleven, sixteen, on up to sixty-three distinct races. Worse, the whole “Caucasian” category turned out to rest then and now on one antique shipped in 1795 to Johann von Blumenbach, a founder of sociology, who said the skull arrived from the Caucasus resembled many German specimens in his collection. Congress, attempting to circumvent an exposed charade, substituted nationality for the vagaries of race in laws governing immigration and naturalization. The National Origins Act of 1924 favored allegedly “sturdy stocks” of northern Europe. It reserved seventy percent of annual immigration quotas to England, Germany, and Ireland. Most observers at the time endorsed a notion of Nordic or Teutonic citizenship in the new law, which the Chicago Tribune called “a Declaration of Independence, not less significant and epoch-making for America and the world than the Declaration of 1776.”

This was the national origins quota system we abolished half a century ago with President Johnson’s Immigration and Nationality Act, whose anniversary we celebrate today. Over the past fifty years, our openness to applicants from all nations has transformed the face of the United States literally and figuratively. Today you join 48 million naturalized legal immigrants since then, of whom some 34 million survive. They supply not only half our population growth but also a comparable portion of new skilled employment. More than we realize, Americans are at home with our national creed of multi-national, multi-ethnic citizenship. All of us must help stragglers reach out, too, perceiving that no foreign origin is too foreign to yield a fellow citizen. The stakes are far greater than courtesy or manners. At the Statue of Liberty, President Johnson proclaimed a vital imperative for our shrinking globe. “We, because of who we are,” he said, “feel safer and stronger in a world as varied as the people who make it up.”

From this day forward, I urge you to proceed as though you own an equal share of our nation’s faults as well as her glories, because you do. Our votes count the same. We are pledged to make real that equal responsibility from the founders, and your experience is vital. Be pushy if need be. Help us lay claim to the converging path of justice that you have marched in good faith, drawing strength from inclusion—rising from discrimination toward full respect and opportunity alongside still-disfavored groups such as women, the disabled, persons of color, and gay and lesbian communities, among others.

Help us restore the determined public trust at the heart of our American experiment. Summon us to dispel cynicism and gridlock in public discourse, inspired anew by the example of our first African American president to tackle the most difficult national problems. Remind us all—not just on occasions like this—of the cumulative audacity and optimism packed into the breathtaking Preamble sentence you now inherit: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

American citizenship is a tough job. Here’s hoping no one told you it’s easy. Welcome again. I am honored to join you. God bless.

After today's ceremony with newly naturalized US citizen Gina Haller (center, with official certificate).

After today’s ceremony with newly naturalized US citizen Gina Haller (center, with official certificate).

A new citizen comes forward for her US citizenship certificate

A new citizen comes forward for her US citizenship certificate during today’s ceremony.

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