The following post is written by Breandán Magee, senior director of programs with our partner the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) in Chicago.
Becoming a United States citizen is a milestone moment in the life of any immigrant, and it comes with a flood of emotions. I naturalized in March of this year in what was truly an emotional and proud day for me.
Through my work at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, an umbrella organization that promotes immigrant integration and citizenship, I attended many oath ceremonies to register new Americans to vote. My colleagues were there the day I raised my own hand to take the oath of allegiance and they registered me to vote, adding an extra layer of meaning to an already emotionally charged day.
The regional director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services swore me in, among immigrants from more than 30 countries. He remarked that our long immigrant journey was over and we were now home. Those words resonated deeply with me, as the path to citizenship is indeed a long journey, an odyssey in fact, for the millions of immigrants who leave their homes in search of a better life. I could not help but think of the countless waves of my own countrymen as they made the trek across the Atlantic to escape famine and grinding poverty to find a better life in this land of plenty.
When I was growing up in Ireland, America always had a magnetic allure. It was the land of cowboys and skyscrapers, which seemed so otherworldly to a young lad growing up in rainy Belfast, but it somehow had the familiarity of home. I was raised on the stories of the Irish in America, their trials and their triumphs, and I always knew that someday I wanted to join their ranks and add a hyphen to my own identity: Irish-American.
I came here 15 years ago as a wide-eyed graduate student and have gone home every year to visit family and reconnect. Just last month, though, I returned to attend the Global Irish Civic Forum, an international migration conference, in Dublin Castle with my American passport, not my Irish one. I was invited by the Irish Minister for the Diaspora to join Irish emigrants from 19 other countries, including Australia, Chile, Spain and many more, for three days of discussion on the phenomenon of international migration and the power of global diasporas.
It was an exhilarating experience to be there as an immigrant and as a U.S. citizen, but also because the conference was being held in Dublin’s 800-year-old castle that just one week prior had spontaneously thrown open its gates to allow throngs of elated Irish citizens to congregate in its cobblestone courtyard to watch the live results of the marriage equality referendum on large screens. Ireland voted “yes” by a large margin in what was the first marriage equality law to be passed by popular referendum in the world.
At the conference I listened attentively to the thought-provoking and often raw testimonies of Irish emigrants who had left a generation ago because they felt excluded in their country of birth. They had made homes in Australia, the U.K. and across the globe, but on that day in the austere halls of Dublin Castle they experienced a catharsis and a healing of sorts, as the Irish people had affirmed equality with a “yes” vote, and from the podium a minister of state decried past prejudices that had forced them to leave.
America has always been a refuge to those fleeing persecution in search of a better life, and today it is home to millions of immigrants, many of whom still cling to the words etched on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as they escape violence and poverty in Central America, the Middle East or elsewhere. I am proud to call myself an American because I know that the values on which this country was founded still ring true. We are, at our core, a welcoming nation of immigrants, all searching for the American dream.
I feel that sense of pride and belonging from the small moments, such as showing my American passport to the Customs and Border Protection official and hearing her say “Welcome home,” to the bigger moments, like knowing that I live in a free and open democracy as I cast my first vote in an election.
Citizenship for me carries a great sense of responsibility and civic duty. I was not born here, but this is my home, and every day comes with new opportunities to give back and to make it more welcoming.