Monday, July 04, 2011

Becoming American

This is an article that, between the interviewing and the writing, I worked on for a couple of years. I thought posting it on Independence Day would be appropriate as I hope it reflects on some of the strengths of the United States of America. In part, it also tells the story of a little Haitian boy who is now a U.S. citizen.

Young La first experienced America on the receiving end of a bomb. He was seven-years-old, and he and his family huddled in a cave near their home in Cambodia. In 1970, the Vietnam War expanded to Cambodia as President Nixon ordered airborne attacks to try to root out the Vietnamese soldiers who were taking refuge in this neutral country. Bombs exploded for five hours as two planes dove and dropped their deadly cargo around Young’s family. "But the soldiers were in the jungles, not the towns," explained Young. The bombs killed villagers and animals, turning the water of their ponds black. During a break, Young and his family ran out into the country where his father had a threshing machine. As they were running, another menacing plane approached. "Keep running!" urged Young's mother. "Don't look back!”

They spent most of the next decade dodging bombs, bullets, and the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge. They farmed, made wine, and worked on a bicycle assembly line to survive. They moved from Cambodia to the border area of Vietnam and back again to avoid the violence, as both countries warred with themselves. “I spent most of my early life in Cambodia,” said Young. “All of it was war.”

Young La’s family chose him to try to get to the United States, as improbable as that journey seemed. They paid a man several ounces of gold to lead Young through the jungles to a UN refuge camp in Thailand. And, here, Young’s luck began to change. He spent only seven months in the camp, unlike his cousin, who spent seven years there, before he got on a Pan Am flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong to Seattle and onto the Midwest. The country that inflicted chaos and destruction on Young’s family and nation would become his new home.

A friend of my mine has a philosophy about being American. He says if you believe in the American idea, than you are an American, no matter where you live. The fundamental American idea is expressed with power and economy in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This truth doesn’t only apply to people who live within our borders. Maybe realizing that should be part of being American.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Joe Billy McDade is a federal judge, senior status, in Peoria on the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. McDade was born in Texas in 1937, but he didn’t have access to his full rights as an American for another three decades.

McDade’s parents died when he was a young boy, and he and his sister were raised by his paternal grandmother. He experienced one of those life-defining moments when he was ten. “My grandmother was only two generations out of slavery and she was subservient to whites,” recalled McDade. “In those days, we had peddlers who would go from house to house selling things. A white peddler came to our door peddling brooms. My grandma bought a broom. I said, ‘Mama J, we can't afford to buy a broom.' We needed that money for our rent. I thought, 'When I grow up, I'm going to be an attorney so that I don't have to buy a broom.' In my mind, lawyers were the epitome of justice."

McDade attended Jack Yates High School, one of three black high schools in Houston, and graduated in 1955, a year after the Brown decision, desegregating schools. Upon the recommendation of a teacher, he applied to and was accepted at Bradley University in Peoria.

McDade played basketball at Bradley and earned a bachelor's in economics and a master's in psychology. He attended law school at the University of Michigan. After he graduated in 1963, he interviewed with some of the top national law firms. None of them offered him a job. He then interviewed with Peoria law firms. "They took me out to lunch and told me no. That was the difference between them and the national firms; they took me to lunch to tell me no." Later on, when McDade returned to Peoria, he was still well known for his success on the hardwood at Bradley. "One man was happy to have my autograph, but then told me, 'No, I won't rent to you.' It was painful."

As late as 1964, the law in the United States did not reflect the core American ideal of equality. The Civil Rights Act redressed this inequity by preventing baseless discrimination and promoting fairness and equality of opportunity. All are created equal was a long time in coming.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In 2005, my husband, Dr. John Carroll, was making rounds at Grace Children’s Hospital in the Delmas section of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. For almost 30 years, John has spent several months a year working in this medically understaffed county. He went to a baby bed and put his arms out to the toddler sitting there. There was no interest; however, the child in the next bed observing this interaction, pulled himself to his feet and put his arms up. It was the moment upon which our son’s fate turned.

John lifted the boy out of the bed. As he carried him around the ward, he thought, “This child doesn’t really look sick.” He approached the nurse’s station and as if reading his mind the nurse said to him, “Abandone.” A couple months later, we would begin the lengthy, complex American and Haitian processes of international adoption.

We moved the boy we were calling Luke from the hospital to an orphanage. We visited him every couple of months on our regular trips to Haiti, as the paperwork wound its way through the system. He loved playing with my watch, staring at the words in a textbook as if he knew how to read, and gobbling down the protein bars we brought him.

For a poor, parentless boy in a poor country, adoption was a miracle route to U.S. citizenship. Since 1989, around 300,000 children from outside the United States have been adopted by American citizens. This may sound like a lot until you consider that UNICEF estimates that there are 163 million orphans worldwide. Luke’s citizenship wasn’t an accident of birth; it was an accident of circumstance.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

After McDade couldn't get a job in Peoria, he was hired in Chicago by the U.S. Department of Justice anti-trust division. He worked there for 18 months and returned to Peoria, having been offered a job in the executive training program at First Federated Savings and Loan. He later went on to work at the Greater Peoria Legal Society, which provided legal services to the poor. Under his leadership, the office expanded from one attorney to four attorneys. He worked in private practice from 1977 to 1982, when he was appointed associate judge in the 10th Circuit District. In 1988, he ran as a Republican for resident judge of the 10th District. He received more votes for this position than anyone running from either party had ever received before. So, though he may not have been able to get a job at one of the law firms in town, "it appeared that I was popular among my customers," said McDade.

Reflecting on the journey that took him from his hardscrabble roots in Texas to his position as a judge, McDade said, "In my life, I've been given opportunities. I was born in such poverty and had restrictions on my freedom, and now to be a U.S. Federal judge. . . it's an example of what can happen under our system. My appointment as a federal judge--you don't get this just because of merit. A lot of people are capable and there is a lot of luck involved."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Luke is eight now and no longer the 25 pound 3-year-old with the orange-tinged hair whom we brought home from Haiti. He is a third grader who does well in his school work and received an award for demonstrating Christian leadership. He loves to wrestle with his dad and play soccer. He was born a go getter and now lives in a place that channels and rewards that quality. He wouldn’t mind being president, but we will have to expand our idea of who is eligible for this position and then write it into the Constitution for that to happen. It’s not an impossibility.

When we landed with Luke at the Miami International Airport on February 19, 2007, he automatically became an American. A couple weeks later, Luke received a letter from President George W. Bush, congratulating him on his citizenship. The letter contained these words:

“Americans are united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals. The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, and that no insignificant person was ever born. Our country has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by principles that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every citizen must uphold these principles. And every new citizen, by embracing these ideas. makes our country, more, not less, American.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Young La was resettled by Catholic Charities in West Peoria, Illinois. For awhile, he lived in their residential facility, Tha Huong, which in Vietnamese means home away from home. Young would ride his bike in the neighborhood and one day, he met my mother-in-law, Mary. She was interested in Young and offered to tutor him in English. They became friends and some years later when Young needed a place to live, she told him he could stay with her so he could save some money. Mary helped find him a good job, too, constructing meat smokers. In turn, he could fix anything in the house, cooked delicious meals, and became like a loyal son to her.

Young graduated from Illinois Central College with an associate’s degree in electronics. He became an American citizen in 1992 and several years later returned to Cambodia where he married a lovely, smart, young woman, Chhoung Tang. He returned to Peoria and began the arduous visa process to bring Chhoung to the United States. After a three-year wait, the visa was granted and Young brought his wife to her new home. They now have two darling daughters. They own their home in West Peoria.

A couple of years ago, Young’s wife Chhoung, took her oath of citizenship in Judge McDade’s courtroom, like Young did 17 years earlier. As the judge entered the courtroom, all stood. "Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes! God save the United States and God save this honorable court," cried the clerk.

A statement was read by an immigration official that the gathered individuals had passed an interview and an exam and should be admitted to citizenship upon taking the following oath of allegiance.

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; 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; 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; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God."

After the oath, McDade had everyone rise and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Then we broke out into song. Judge McDade told us that he would sing the first verse of "America the Beautiful” and for us all to join in if we wanted to. We sang it and it went so well, McDade said, "That was really nice. Let's sing it again." So we did.

"I just love that song," said McDade. "It hits me where it's good to be hit once in awhile."

Next, we heard from dignitaries who assembled to address the new citizens. There were representatives from Rep. Aaron Schock's office, Sen. Roland Burris's office, the Social Security Dept., the Daughters of the American Revolution, the American Legion, Post #2, and the League of Women Voters. All offered their welcome and words of advice to the new citizens.

At the end of the ceremony, Judge McDade made some remarks.

"I get a little sentimental on these occasions," he said. "As a judge, I am usually doing things that are injurious to people, like sending them to jail. I don't like to do this, but it's necessary."

"We just want you to know that we're glad you're here. I appreciate that this has been a tough road. You did it the right way. To a certain extent, I wish that all Americans could go through this process. Some of us who are native born don't fully appreciate the benefits of citizenship like you do."

Nodding at the dignitaries, McDade encouraged the new citizens to get involved. These volunteer organizations are "the essence of participatory democracy. Join them because that's how things get done in this country. You will bring something very unique to these groups. Your involvement is a great opportunity for this country to learn from you."

"This is one of the most important tasks I have,” said McDade. “I'm helping this country grow by helping with the naturalization process." Because all Americans, “with the exception of two groups, are ancestors of immigrants or immigrants: the American Indian and Black Americans who were brought here in chains. Some of you came from countries where freedom is not complete. . . yet."

The judge then read through a list of all the countries represented by the new citizens and asked them to stand as he read their country's name. "I want to get a good look at you:

"Bolivia, Cambodia, Canada, People's Republic of China, El Salvador, India, Korea, Macedonia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, Singapore, the UK, Sudan, France, and Vietnam."

One by one, or in the case of China several at once, all rose as their country of origin was called.

"Now turn around and look at each other," said McDade. "Go ahead. Do it. Look at each other. You're beautiful. This is America. You see how different you are. You are all equal as Americans. You've got a lot of other countries and everyone looks alike: their skin color, languages, customs, religion are all alike. In this country, that is not true. Almost everyone is different."

My husband John, along with other friends and relatives of the new citizens, was up with the new citizens, taking pictures. I was back in the visitors’ gallery with Young and his daughter Annie, who had fallen asleep in her father's lap.

Judge McDade continued his remarks: "In America, we believe strongly that freedom and liberty are precious things. With freedom, you can do good things or bad things. But you have the opportunity to create your own life here, the way you want to. Everyone has this opportunity. I grew up without any parents, picking cotton in the South. I was subjected to discrimination, some of it legal. Now, I'm one of 1,000 federal judges. One of your descendents will hold important positions in the government--perhaps even president."

"Now, I'm going to be the one to tell you this, because you'd find out eventually. Some people don't want you here. They don't want me here. They want people who only look like them and think like them. This country is big enough for all of us. We need you to make America better. I'm glad you're here. I expect a lot out of you. I expect you to make this country better than you found it."

And with that citizenship certificates were handed out and Judge McDade was the first person to shake the new Americans' hands. He told them he would stay in the court room for pictures as long as they wanted.

America for all, and all for America.

No comments: