Aniefiok Suquo’s lifelong dream of becoming an American was realized Wednesday in a 19-minute ceremony during which he and 196 other immigrants raised their right hands and took the oath of citizenship.
I hereby declare . . . that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.
To Suquo, a 43-year-old native of Nigeria, the words mean freedom and opportunity. Calling the country of his birth “highly corrupt,” Suquo said that “we don’t have leaders who care to make provisions for citizens.” The Nigerian president, he noted, had reportedly appointed eight dead people to government positions.
But in the six years that Suquo has lived here, the Quincy resident has seized opportunity in pursuit of the American Dream, graduating from Fisher College and getting a job working as a data analyst.
Wednesday’s ceremony took place at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, in Dorchester, as the country finds itself embroiled in a bitter debate about immigration, with President Trump and Congress arguing about who should be allowed to call the United States home.
That debate has been tainted by accusations of racial and religious discrimination as the president has restricted travel from Muslim-majority nations, rescinded federal protections for immigrants from some Central American and Caribbean countries, and supposedly disparaged African nations while saying immigrants from countries like Norway are preferable.
But none of that vitriol was evident as Steve Rothstein, executive director of the library, and US District Judge William Young, a Reagan-era appointee, both said it was a “privilege to welcome” some of the country’s newest citizens and their families and friends.
“Of all the things that we do,” Young said of federal judges in Massachusetts, “probably nothing is as important as the renewing of our nation through welcoming new citizens.”
“A judge much wiser than I said words like these,” he continued. “To be an American is not simply to be from a place. It is not an accident of birth. What it is is a devotion to the ideals of our nation. You make this nation strong. You make this nation more human. You renew it with your blood and your faith and your passion.”
As Young spoke, 197 immigrants from 50 countries on every continent except Antarctica waved tiny American flags and listened with rapt attention and waited to take the oath.
Some, like 66-year-old Cornelio Santos, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic 32 years ago, have called the United States home for decades and decided the time had come to become citizens. Others, like 23-year-old Jhonny Nunez, whose country of birth is also the Dominican Republic, were brought to the United States as children by their parents and have decided as adults to become citizens.
And while the reasons and the paths that brought each to this moment varied, the outcome was the same.
I hereby declare, on oath, that I . . . will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law . . .
These are the words that resonated most with 46-year-old Assaad El Najjar.
“I’m feeling American,” the native of Lebanon said. “I believe firmly in this country.”
America, he said, means a better life. It means ambition. It means a chance to experience different cultures. It means a sense of liberty that he’s willing to defend with his life.
And he knows that with democracy comes dissent, saying the acerbic tone of the national debate on immigration is “a lot of noise. It’s confusing people and scaring people. This is not how you belong to a new country that you live in and will die for.”
People, he said, should be thinking about what immigrants give and not what they take from the country.
What Edgar Diaz, a dental assistant and barber from the Dominican Republic, plans to contribute is his vote. He sees the power of the ballot box as being the hallmark of American democracy.
“This is very important, because now I have a voice to make this country better for people who come from another country and people who live here,” he said. “This is amazing.”
Had Diaz, 30, been able to participate in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton would have gotten his vote. President Trump, he said, “Doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The immigrants in this country, they are supporting this country and making this country better.”
Suquo might disagree, saying that he welcomed the president’s comments about African nations — considering what he calls rampant corruption overrunning places in his homeland.
“He was being nice,” he said. “There has to be someone who calls them out.”
Dissent. It’s an American tradition.Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.