Editor’s note: Federal Judge James Shadid delivered the following remarks at the naturalization ceremony over which he presided on Sept. 23 at Peoria Riverfront Museum, where he also administered the oath of American citizenship to nearly 100 candidates.
Every one of you, every one of us, has a story to tell. Today, 100 of you from 30 countries with a story of hope, a story of anxiousness, a story of worry, a story of excitement. Maybe it’s all part of one story – how we came here, why we came here, how and when our ancestors came before us, paving the way for a better life for ourselves and our families.
Yes, every American has a story to tell and each story is part of strengthening the fabric of America. Today, I would like to share with you my story. It is my way to say “thank you” to my grandparents, but also to say “thank you” to each of you for the decision you make today. Your decision will affect your children, your family, your friends, all of us, in more ways than you can imagine.
There is a small village tucked in a rugged corner of Lebanon between Syria and Israel, called Marjayoun. In the early 1900s, it had a population of 10,000 people and four newspapers. It has been described as once being graceful and gentle, landscaped with olive trees and stone houses roofed with red tile.
That forgotten corner of Lebanon was once the proud home of my grandparents.
My Grandpa Shadid peddled clothing with his father on a route from Marjayoun to Damascus. One day during his travels, his father died and my grandfather carried him for two days, so he would have a proper burial.
In 1919, my grandfather married Adeebi Massad. Their honeymoon consisted of boarding a boat for the United States, traveling in steerage.
Like most others, they suffered through hardship and depression to make their way. Somehow, like most others, they struggled on, earning a living, raising a family and building a nation.
Now, I honestly don’t know what the circumstances of that decision would be today. At the time, they were considered to be from Syria. Often, I think of how fortunate they were … that their nine children were … that their 33 grandchildren were … that they were able to come here at the time.
That America received them.
My grandparents’ nine children worked as a police officer, protecting your streets; at Caterpillar in labor and management; as postal workers delivering your mail; as small business owners serving your needs; as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives raising their children.
All as proud Americans.
Those 33 grandchildren were no different, working in the trades as laborers, construction workers, builders and carpenters; in small business as management; in investments, in pharmacy, in insurance, in education, in medicine, in law and in many other professions.
All as proud Americans.
The fourth child of my grandparents was my father, George Shadid. With only an eighth-grade education, Dad became a Peoria police officer for 23 years, sheriff of Peoria County for 17 years, and an Illinois state senator for 13 years. For six of those years in the Illinois Senate, Dad sat next to – and became friends with – a Harvard Law School educated gentleman and future president of the United States: Barack Obama.
Only in America? Yes.
As those immigrant grandparents of mine look down on me today, they see a grandson presiding over this ceremony as a United States District Judge, administering the same oath to you that my grandfather took 92 years ago, in 1930. And they see this certificate, the same that you will receive today, that I display in my office as a daily reminder of the decision they made for a better life for themselves and their family.
Could they have imagined what we would become? No. But they could imagine that we would follow the path they charted and do our part to build a nation.
If my grandfather were here today, he would say to me that no matter the law I’ve learned, or the books I’ve read, or the titles I have obtained, I already hold the highest office in the land: the Office of Citizen.
That is their story. My story. The story of my uncles and aunts and cousins. You have your own stories. They may be different in how you came here but they are similar in why you came here, and they are the same as to the hopes and dreams you have for yourselves and your families. Some of you came as children. Some you came as adults. You each share a common spirit, a spirit that has found its way here from every place on the globe, coming as individuals and in groups, bringing your traditions and cultures.
Becoming a citizen has never been restricted to those of special privilege, or status, or physical likeness or language, but based on the ideal of self-government, liberty and justice, equal rights and equal opportunity, which has renewed and strengthened America for more than two centuries.
And while we all look different and come from different places, the one story we all share is this:
Pride in your family is the same in every country.
Pride in your children is the same in every country.
Pride in yourselves is the same in every country.
Having said that, let me finish with this: For the past 11 years, I have presided over naturalization ceremonies with positive and hopeful remarks. Today is no different except that I recognize the divisive, demeaning and hate-filled words that often surround conversations regarding citizenship, immigrants and legal immigration.
As a result, your responsibilities as citizens, my responsibility as a citizen, are as important today as each generation that came before us – maybe more important – as you are called upon to do your part to build this nation.
This divisiveness is not new to America. At times in our history, those that want America to be only as they wish it to be come out and shout, and when they don’t think they are being heard, they shout louder. They challenge all the qualities associated with America in the way that we treat each other – with fairness, tolerance, compassion, equality, civility and freedom – the qualities that likely inspired you to come here in the first place.
These shouters are as old as America itself. President Lincoln once said in response that he was opposed to that which degrades a person, any person. How simple is that?
What can we learn from Lincoln, and from our grandparents, and from our parents, and from each other? To honestly accept our responsibilities as citizens and to never abuse the privileges we are afforded from the fact of our citizenship. No group may be more qualified than you to do so. Today you are an affirmation of what America is and will continue to be.
I welcome you today as citizens of the United States. You honor us with your decision. I thank you for doing so as you and I – we, the people of the United States, holding the Office of Citizen – continue to strengthen the fabric of America and continue to live, and love, the promise of America.
Out of many, one.