New York Times (Op-ed)
By Denny Chin
September 16, 2016
My grandfather immigrated to the United States from China almost 100 years ago — on Nov. 16, 1916. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and subsequent similar legislation, there was no open door to the American dream for him. He was able to enter only by buying a piece of paper representing that he was the son of a United States citizen.
My grandfather worked as a waiter in Chinese restaurants in New York for many years. He returned to China only twice — once in the 1920s, when he married my grandmother, and once in the 1930s, when my father was born. Both times he left his family in China to return to the United States. He could not bring his wife or son with him, because of the immigration laws, but he could better support them here in America. He shared a railroad apartment in Chinatown with other Chinese men, and every month, like them, he would buy a money order at the post office and send it home to his family in China.
In 1947, something remarkable happened: My grandfather became an American citizen.
Today I see his journey from a special perspective. I am a federal judge, and like many of my judicial colleagues, I have been able to play a personal role in the process as immigrants from all around the world have become American citizens.
On Sept. 16, the federal courts and many Americans celebrate Constitution Day, which marks the signing of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787, and Citizenship Day, which celebrates the rights of all Americans. All across the country federal judges are swearing in new Americans.
Because we are also celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, many of these ceremonies will be held in national parks, including Ellis Island in New York, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kan. On Friday in Ellis Island’s Great Hall, hundreds of new Americans will swear to uphold our nation’s Constitution and to fulfill their obligations as citizens.
When my grandfather was naturalized as a citizen, he had been separated from my father for many years. But because he became a citizen, when the immigration laws were reformed in the 1950s, my grandfather was able to bring his family here. By then, my father was a young man in Hong Kong, with a family of his own. My parents and their three children — including me — were able to join my grandfather in America.
My parents spoke little English. My father worked as a cook in Chinese restaurants and my mother as a seamstress in garment factories. They understood the importance of education, and thus my siblings and I worked hard in school. My parents also appreciated the importance of citizenship, and they became naturalized in 1965. And because I was only 11 years old that year, I became an American citizen as well, by operation of law.
I was appointed a federal trial judge in 1994 and served in that capacity until I was elevated to the federal appellate court in 2010. I now sit in the magnificent Thurgood Marshall United States Court House in Lower Manhattan, in chambers once occupied by Justice Marshall himself when he was a judge on our court in the 1960s. I know that none of this would have happened if my grandfather and parents had not worked so hard for so long, had they not become United States citizens.
My grandfather’s naturalization certificate hangs on the wall in my chambers. On the back, it states that he was sworn in as a new citizen in “open court,” in the very courthouse, I believe, where I sit now.
One of the things I have missed since becoming an appellate judge is the naturalization ceremony. When I served as a Federal District Court judge, I performed the naturalization ceremony regularly. I would naturalize some 200 immigrants at a time, from dozens of countries around the world. And when I performed that ceremony, I would take my grandfather’s naturalization certificate into the courtroom, and I would show it to the new citizens and tell them the story of my grandfather.
When the ceremony was over, I would shake the hand of each new citizen. I was most inspired by the elderly, some hobbling, some wheelchair-bound, who still appreciated the importance of becoming an American citizen.
On this Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, I will be thinking of my grandfather and of the many new citizens I was privileged to swear in over the years, and of the principles of liberty, justice and equality that have made our country so great.
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