Years ago, when I was a young pup of a reporter for the Des Moines Register, my assignment was covering state and federal courts.
Normally, it amounted to reporting on the dirty laundry of society that gets scrubbed in the courts — the murders, the robberies, the embezzlements and the civil lawsuits.
But whenever time permitted, I would grab a seat in the back of U.S. District Judge William C. Stuart’s ornate courtroom in the federal courthouse in Des Moines and watch as he administered the oath of citizenship to newly naturalized citizens of the United States.
It was always an inspiring occasion. It was an opportunity to flush dirty laundry water from my system and take in the uplifting scene as a row of people whose lives started in other countries told the United States of America they wanted to officially declare the U.S. was now their home.
For the past 10 years, a naturalization ceremony has occurred at Principal Park, the home of Minor League Baseball’s Iowa Cubs, in conjunction with Independence Day.
So it was last week on the Fourth of July. Thirty people from 14 other nations became U.S. citizens right there along the third-base line before the Cubs’ game against Memphis. A huge fireworks show capped off the glorious evening.
To date, 327 people have taken the oath of citizenship at the Des Moines ballpark.
The stirring ceremony is all the more meaningful when we stop to think about the foreign men and women and their children who stream toward our borders in the hope that they will be allowed to live in this country. It was the same dreams of prosperity that lured my ancestors to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
The stadium was filled that evening last week — with fans and with emotions. People were on their feet cheering these soon-to-be citizens as soon as they were escorted onto the field.
As moving as the ceremony itself is — with the national anthem, the introduction of each immigrant and his or her home nation, and the citizenship oath — it is the message U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt has for the new Americans that sends shivers up and down my spine every time I hear it.
My ancestors settled in this place we call Iowa 179 years ago, six years before Iowa became a state. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia in 1776, my forbears already lived in the “new world.”
No one welcomed those ancestors of mine like Judge Pratt welcomed our newest citizens. His speech was a variation of these remarks he made at a naturalization ceremony a few years ago:
“For over 200 years this country has been blessed with a constant infusion of new people from all over the world who brought their languages, their heritages and their cultural values with them. Today it is you who so bless us.”
And then he provided an important lesson on citizenship. It’s a lesson we all should remember and take to heart.
“You may hear voices in this land say that there is only one true American religion. Do not believe it. As an American you may freely and openly be a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or you may adhere to any other religion, or you may be an agnostic or an atheist.
“You may hear voices in this land say that there is only one true American way to think and believe about political matters, economic matters, and social matters. Do not believe it. As an American you may freely and openly adhere to political, economic and social views on the right, on the left, or anywhere in between.
“You may hear voices in this land say that there is only one true American set of values. Do not believe it. As an American you may openly hold beliefs and values greatly different from those of others — even if those of others are shared by many and yours are shared by few.
“Simply stated, there is no single American way to think or believe. Indeed, conformity of thought and belief would be contrary to the underlying principles of this great nation.”
The judge usually has another important reminder for those on the field and those filling the stadium seats:
“I believe that it is also well worth remembering that the courts of this land are here to protect and preserve your right as Americans to freely and openly think and believe as you wish, and to be different. I welcome you to citizenship, and I rejoice in the enrichment that each of you brings to our land.”
Immigration was the message of a full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times.
The ad was purchased by the family of Lee Iacocca, the legendary auto industry executive who developed the Ford Mustang and the minivan. He died last week at the age of 94.
Iacocca was the son of Italian immigrants, and the memorial ad featured this timely quotation from him:
“All the success I’ve had, all the jobs I’ve saved and the lives I’ve influenced would never have happened if my parents had been turned away at Ellis Island.”
Thank you, Lee Iacocca and Judge Pratt for your reminders. We needed them.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.