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Brian Hunhoff

Editor’s note: South Dakota journalist and First Amendment champion Brian Hunhoff gave the keynote speech recently at a Sioux Falls naturalization ceremony for new citizens. The experience inspired this commentary, which he shared with The Beacon and other newspapers through the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

We are better together than we are alone.

It was one of many thoughts that crossed my mind at a ceremony welcoming new citizens from 40 different countries to these United States.

It was my first time at a naturalization ceremony. I wish everyone in America could experience it.

I wish everyone could see the joy and pride shining in the faces of those 237 new Americans.

I wish everyone could see how eager and excited they are to be here, and how much energy they bring to our country.

I wish everyone could see the powerful level of gratitude they expressed.

If everyone had witnessed that ceremony, I think we would have less discord about immigration in this “great land of liberty.”

In recent years, our country’s acceptance of people different from us has steadily declined.

Mesfin Yilma from Ethiopia wrote me the day after the ceremony, saying, “Dear sir, I was very impressed and enjoyed your speech. Our country needs a person like you — honest, kind and faithful. God bless you.”

My favorite part of his note was when Mr. Yilma used the words, “our country.” I could easily turn the tables on my new friend and say, “No, our country needs more people like you, Mesfin.”

I am one of the lucky ones. I was born here. My citizenship came easy. It was a birthright. The same is true of most U.S. citizens. Just 6 percent are naturalized. Just 6 percent took the path less traveled and became Americans the hard way.

It’s not an easy or fast process. Most worked and waited years to join us. They became Americans through sacrifice, determination and vision of a better life. After their long journey to achieve it, they are unlikely to take the blessing of citizenship lightly.

And it is a blessing. America means equal opportunity and pursuit of happiness. America means rich and poor have the same rights. We support truth, justice and the rule of law. And no one in America — not even the president — is above that law.

America’s greatest achievements are not skyscrapers or jets. Our strength lies in our compassion, in our communities, where our people care for one another; where neighbors help neighbors — and strangers — in times of need.

America is big cities and small towns; cornfields and main streets; veterans and nurses; teachers and truck drivers; factory workers, farmers and firefighters.

America is working one place 40 years or changing jobs every year if you want to.

America is open government and voting and running for office if you want to.

America is a nation of immigrants, multicultural by design. We should be a celebration of diversity. America should mean respect and dignity for all people. America is red, white and blue. We’re also black, white and brown.

America is Democrats and Republicans and independents. America is any religion or no religion — the right to pray freely or not pray at all.

America means liberty to be who we want to be and fighting for that freedom if need be. It means standing up to bullies who disguise bigotry and cruelty as patriotism.

America is a place where we rise above that which separates us to build a stronger nation on that which unites us.

— Hunhoff is a contributing editor for The Yankton County Observer in South Dakota.