The bitter national debate over race and immigration, stoked by President Trump’s call that four Democratic congresswomen of color “go back” to other countries, seemed muted and distant Wednesday in a crowded hall overlooking Dorchester Bay.
Instead of discord, the scene at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum was one of joy, excitement, and anticipation as 197 men and women from a potpourri of countries became new US citizens in a simple, poignant ceremony.
“It’s my distinct privilege, my honor, to extend to each and every one of you the most sincere, warmest, genuine welcome,” US District Judge William Young said. “You have made America stronger, more diverse . . . more gentle, more humane, more American.”
If a broad welcome for US immigrants has seemed less certain recently, the reception for these latest citizens pushed that issue to the background, at least temporarily. Applause filled the hall, miniature flags fluttered from dozens of hands, and a voter registration table was busy nearby with new citizens eager to join the democratic process.
“This gives me a chance to vote, and that’s what’s most important,” said Edward Lang, 39, a cybersecurity analyst who immigrated to the United States from the West African nation of Ghana. As a citizen, Lang said, he now has a chance at higher security clearances and better jobs.
Lang has heard the anti-immigrant rhetoric, but he dismissed much of it as political pandering.
“I understand that politics is what it is. It’s important that we do not feed that narrative,” Lang said.
“Be of good character. Be the best you can be. Show kindness,” he said. “That’s the answer to the negatives. Hopefully, it will drive away some of the hatred.”
Tong Yang, a 32-year-old engineer who emigrated as an infant from Thailand, also has heard the concerns. The son of a Thai soldier secretly allied with US forces during the Vietnam War, Yang said he understands the argument against immigrants who do not enter the country legally.
But the words still hurt.
“It feels different now than it was just four years ago. It doesn’t feel as welcome,” Yang said. “We need to come together and understand why people came here.”
The reasons these new citizens came to the United States vary widely — from political turmoil at home, to economic opportunity here, to a chance to reconnect with their families. Over and over, they spoke Wednesday of being honored to join the American family, of the privilege to take the oath, and of how happy they were that this day finally had arrived.
“Americans!” shouted Givanildo Sousa, 34, an emigrant from Cape Verde who proudly clutched the certificate of citizenship he had just received.
Ray Franke, a native of Germany who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston, pushed a 5-day-old child in a stroller as he savored the conclusion of a long path to American citizenship.
His wife, Anja, also became a citizen Wednesday, and the couple brought along their older child, 5-year-old Tiago, to share the experience.
Ray Franke, an assistant professor of higher education, said he was “happy, humbled, and excited” to become a citizen, but that the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of Washington and elsewhere is “extremely concerning.” At UMass Boston, he said, the faculty “deals with immigrant communities all the time.”
Those perspectives — gratitude to become an American, acknowledgment of the immigration controversy — were echoed by Pietro Cottone, a Boston University associate professor of pharmacology.
“I know I am one of the very few who can have this opportunity in my life,” said Cottone, 43, a native of Italy.
Cottone, who also is a musician and composer, is an advocate for opportunity. He recently released an album, described as a defense of the voiceless, titled “Fight for Their Rights.”
As he raised his right hand during the oath of citizenship, Cottone nodded slightly and repeatedly as he swore to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
When the oath was completed, new citizen Elsa Pina, a 29-year-old native of Cape Verde, reached out her hand to congratulate Cottone.
“Well, that’s it!” Young said to loud, shared laughter. “You came here by many different paths, but we’re all in the same boat now.”