(Bloomberg) -- On my right, a Catholic nun from Ukraine, in her habit. On her right, a woman from Liberia. On my left, a couple from India.
Altogether we are 50 immigrants from 30 countries ranging alphabetically from Albania to Vietnam, gathered in a small town of historical renown: Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania.
Facing a reproduction of the famed painting depicting George Washington rafting across the nearby Delaware River in 1776, we pledge to defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic. And with that, we’re citizens. In booklets that the government hands out, we are reminded that the U.S. has a cherished history as a welcoming country: Americans, Abraham Lincoln said in 1860, “should dwell together in the bonds of fraternal feeling.’’
The night before, news broke that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services -- the same agency that hosted the naturalization -- was removing the phrase “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.
Those fraternal feelings are being tested like never before, or so it seems. History tells us otherwise.
Many times during its 242 years, the U.S. has been less than welcoming: Chinese immigrants were banned in the 1880s and Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were aimed mostly at deporting people from my native country, France, against whom the U.S. was fighting an undeclared war at sea.
‘Tumult and Fear’
The infamous sedition laws “must be seen in the context of the time, and the context was tumult and fear,’’ historian David McCullough wrote.
Bad feeling was uncontained that year. Citing “vicious animosity of a kind previously confined to newspaper attacks,’’ McCullough describes how a Connecticut lawmaker deployed a cane against a colleague from Vermont who had earlier spat on him. The Vermont lawmaker grabbed fire tongs. Mayhem ensued, with kicking and rolling on the floor, and peace came only when they were pulled apart.
Twitter insults seem tame by comparison. But the Founding Fathers recognized that episodes of friction and fury were inevitable -- and evanescent.
“Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections,” Washington said in his farewell address of 1796. “With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together.”
Nothing predestined me to become American. Born near Lyon to a middle-class family, I grew up in a village in the Alps where driving an hour to visit my grandparents was considered a long trip. Paris was officially “far.’’ A large part of my extended family still lives within about 15 kilometers (9 miles), on land inherited from our peasant ancestors. In 1989, our first trip to the U.S. also marked the first time my parents, then in their 40s, ever took a plane.
Life took me to Paris to study, to New York for a journalism degree, to London, where I was hired as a reporter by Bloomberg News, and back to the U.S. at the end of 2004.
I became eligible for citizenship in 2012 -- three years after getting a green card via marriage to an American. I had by then spent about a decade in the U.S., the majority of my adulthood.
Recognizing this would be one of my most important decisions, I didn’t apply right away. I wanted to “feel’’ American. I wanted to wait for the right time.
Divisions and Doubts
The right time arrived when embracing this nation means embracing its divisions, doubts and withdrawal from the world stage: another time of tumult and fear.
My decision crystallized during the acrimonious presidential campaign in summer 2016. I lived, worked and paid taxes in the U.S. I shared the values enshrined in its founding documents, yet couldn’t participate in its democracy.
Hours after I emailed my immigration lawyer in Philadelphia -- the City of Brotherly Love -- the president issued his second travel ban against certain predominantly Muslim countries.
While my application was in the works, deportation agents were making arrests across the country. My lawyer saw enforcement priorities change as soon as the new administration took office.
Her small immigration boutique of 30 years, specializing in family- and employment-based immigration, couldn’t cope with the number of calls for deportation cases and merged with a larger firm.
Not an Adieu
Being French, I never was the target of anti-immigration measures or sentiment. My origins give me de facto, and undeserved, credit for my sense of fashion, exotic accent and imagined cooking talent. “Why would anyone leave France?’’ is a recurring question, usually from people who fell in love with Paris during a summer vacation.
Becoming American wasn’t a final adieu to my roots. Because France is among countries that recognize dual citizenship, I never had to make that hard choice. I get to hold two passports.
Back at the ceremony in Washington Crossing, the nun on my right -- with whom I have by now struck up a friendship -- doesn’t have that privilege. She has to renounce her Ukranian citizenship.
We’re both Americans now, and all 50 of us are singing the national anthem in a Babel of accents.
My parents -- who made a surprise trip to witness this -- get caught up and sing along with the words on the screen.
“I felt American when I sang the anthem,” my mother, Simone Daurat, said afterward. “It was moving to see all those people who didn’t know each other become part of a community.’’
My father, Alain: “The U.S. is our second nation.’’
Immediately following the ceremony, I registered to vote.
(Cécile Daurat, an editor at Bloomberg News, became a U.S. citizen on Feb. 23, a day after the 286th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday. She celebrated with her family over a glass of red wine. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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