Foon Rhee

Children remind us what America stands for

Kseniya Senchenko, 14, was one of 11 children who received their citizenship certificates in Sacramento last week.
Kseniya Senchenko, 14, was one of 11 children who received their citizenship certificates in Sacramento last week. frhee@sacbee.com

Besides cookouts, parades and fireworks, we should honor another Fourth of July tradition – citizenship ceremonies.

More than 7,000 new Americans are being welcomed in nearly 100 Independence Day-themed events through the long holiday weekend.

That’s nearly double the number last year, and I say: Good timing. Particularly this year – with all the swill about refugees and immigrants from Donald Trump and his minions – we all could use a reminder why America is still a beacon to so many people around the globe.

I went to the citizenship event last Thursday in Sacramento for 11 children representing 10 different nations. I asked some of them: What does it mean to become an American today?

“You’re free to do what you want to do,” said Kseniya Senchenko, 14, who came here from Ukraine. She likes to draw Japanese anime and is thinking about becoming a police detective so she can help others.

“Some of my dreams have come true,” said Aliza Ali, 12, who was born in Fiji, is going into sixth grade and really likes gymnastics.

“It means I’ll be with my family, and that’s the most important thing,” said Sneh Patel, 13, born in India and now living in Stockton.

From the mouths of children, truth.

I couldn’t help but wonder what Trump would make of it – if he could stand in front of these kids and say the hateful things that rile up supporters at campaign rallies.

I felt only pride when Aliza helped lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and when all the children took the Oath of Allegiance as beaming relatives snapped photos.

The families filled the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum, a replica of a one-room school that was built in 1976 for our bicentennial. “Welcome to America,” it said on one side of the chalkboard in front. On the other side, it read: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” It’s from the Bible, not our founding fathers, but the golden rule is good advice all the same.

A man played patriotic songs on an old organ. Everyone held miniature flags and nibbled on star-shaped cookies with red, white and blue sprinkles.

An immigration official told the children that if their names were wrong on their citizenship certificates and it wasn’t corrected that day, it would take money and time to fix it. Yes, wrestling with bureaucracy is part of being an American, too.

The official also read a more inspiring message from President Barack Obama – that “no dream is impossible” and that they would help write the next great chapter of our nation’s story.

Finally, each child walked up to get their certificate, which they received under a 2000 law that grants citizenship to children who have a green card when a parent becomes a citizen. They also came from Belarus, Iraq, Nepal, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand and the Philippines, officially adding to the most diverse state in the nation.

Thursday’s event was one of four ceremonies in California, though none on the Fourth itself. A big citizenship ceremony would be a wonderful civic event to hold at the new downtown arena next July Fourth. I’m thinking big-name speaker, indoor fireworks, a big to-do hosted by the city and the Kings.

We should celebrate that California welcomes the most new citizens of any state by far – more than 36,000 just in the first quarter of 2016, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services numbers.

Of California’s 10 million immigrants, about half are naturalized citizens and another quarter have legal status. Of America’s 42 million immigrants, about 20 million are citizens, a majority naturalized since 2000.

Many have become solid parts of their communities and helped strengthen our country. A decade ago, the citizenship agency started an Outstanding American by Choice award to honor naturalized citizens who made a name for themselves. Several Californians have been recognized, including academics, actors, nonprofit leaders, public officials and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Who knows? One of the kids I saw could do something great and make that list one day.

I wouldn’t bet against Sneh. For someone only going into eighth grade, he was remarkably self-assured and certain of his career. “I want to be a mechanical engineer or electrical engineer,” he told me. “I just like building things.”

That’s the hope and promise of America we can never take for granted – that new citizens, just like the native-born, can help create our more perfect union.

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