Jeff Bleich's Keynote Address to New American Citizens

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On January 11, 2018, Jeff delivered the keynote speech in a naturalization ceremony at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, CA. On the same day that President Trump insulted and disparaged immigrants, Jeff told the audience that the only way to drown out racism and bigotry is by ringing the bell of freedom louder and stronger than even a President’s voice.

Below are Jeff's full remarks from the ceremony:

There is no greater honor than the one I have at this moment. To be the very first person to call each of you "my fellow Americans."

Nothing is more American than the journey that brought each and every one of you here today. You've come from 91 countries, and endured many different challenges. But today, we have all come together, to arrive at this place, at this moment, to pledge a common faith.

That's unusual. People of other nations aren't expected to share principles. They share land, language, culture, and symbols. But what binds all Americans together is not simply our physical borders, our language, or our flags and symbols. We are bound together by an ideal. For centuries, people from around the world have come to the United States seeking a different life -- a life in which they could choose their leaders, speak their minds, live where they wish, marry who they wish, worship as they wish, pursue their dreams, and be among people who would honor those choices. That's who we are.

My family's story is one of those stories; a story of people seeking freedom. My great grandparents fled persecution in Eastern Europe. Some fled pogroms in Russia. Some fled anti-semitism in Germany and Austria. They left behind everything they had, everyone they knew, including their loved ones. Their family, all of my ancestors in Europe, perished in the Holocaust. I do not have heirlooms, or pictures, or distant cousins I can find on Facebook. The only place our family exists is here, in America; the one nation that took us in, and gave us a chance. So when I represent this Nation as an Ambassador, and when I lead our Fulbright exchanges in 160 different nations, I know this: I would not be alive today were it not for the United States of America. This nation is the gift that my great-Grandparents gave me. This nation is the gift that you are giving your own, great-Grandchildren.

That story. My story, and your story, is the history of every single American family. We are all immigrants. Our nation was founded by immigrants, to be a nation of immigrants.

But we are also more than a collection of immigrants. By taking this oath today, by pledging allegiance to the United States and its Constitution, you swear to be something even more. You agree to uphold the most important office in our land.

The office of citizen.

This is not rhetoric. Citizens choose who will lead us. Citizens decide who is free and who will be punished. Citizens decide whether we will continue to live by the values that drew us here, or not. Becoming a citizen is not the end of your journey -- it is the beginning of it.  

The duties of citizenship are the essence of America. To choose your leaders, defend your liberty, speak out, use your talents for the greater good, and stand up for one another.

So first. Vote. Vote in every election, and demand that everyone in your family vote as well. Every time you vote, you are honoring the memory of each person who fought and died and sacrificed to secure that right. You are honoring every slave and suffragette who died without ever experiencing the chance to cast a ballot. And every time you vote, you are honoring those people today, living in tyranny around the world who dream of one day having their voice heard.

Second, appear for jury duty. Liberty is the most precious thing we have. Our laws were devised to ensure that only the people -- not their government -- can deprive a person of their liberty.

Third, hold your leaders accountable. If your leaders fall short of the American dream -- if they attempt to silence free speech, if they try to exclude people based on their religion, if they seek to deny citizens their rights, if they threaten to lock up their political opponents, you must call them out.

Fourth, pay it forward. If you came here because of America's prosperity, then commit to increasing that prosperity. Many of the people who built the great tech businesses here -- stood where you do today. Elon Musk who founded Tesla and Solar City and SpaceX was born in South Africa. Sergei Brin who founded Google was born in Soviet Russia. Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon, is the son of a Cuban immigrant. Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo was born in Taiwan. Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay was the child of Iranians. And Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, was the child of a Syrian immigrant. This room is filled with the people who will teach our children, heal the sick, defend our freedom, build our homes, transform industries, and inspire us to dream big dreams.

Finally, the last duty is to respect not just our laws, but respect one another. The more vulnerable a person is, the more they deserve our protection and the protection of our laws. That is true whether the person is a new arrival seeking asylum, a woman or girl seeking a job from a more powerful man, or a person in need. We do not just stand up for our laws; we stand up for each other.

Americans have not always lived up to this last duty. From time to time, we forget who we are, and where we have come from. Chinese immigrants were once persecuted here in California. In fact, they were once banned from ever becoming citizens. During World War II, Japanese-American citizens -- legal Americans -- were detained in internment camps. At different times, different nationalities -- Irish, Polish, Mexican, and many others -- were scorned and belittled. We hear these sentiments sometimes today from Americans, including some of our own leaders. These are people who have forgotten who we are, and the vow they took as Americans. It is up to you, to remember. The thing that drew you to become a citizen, and to endure all that you've endured to get here, is not guaranteed. It is not here by divine right. It is up to you.

So let me congratulate you again. Today, the bell of liberty passes to you. You have inherited a heck of a nation -- with all of its multitudes and differences, all of its genius and blind-spots. It needs to be reminded every day what liberty means. So ring that bell. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, it is the duty of every American to let freedom ring. So Ring it loud. Ring it proud. And keep ringing it to beckon that next generation of great Americans.

 


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  • Mary Smith
    Jeff, As always “well said”. As a granddaughter of an Irish Immigrant I
    Appreciated your words. Your audience of
    New United States of American Citizen’s
    Were very blessed to be welcomed by YOU!
    Keep doing what your passion directs to
    Do. I know it’s all for the people.
    God Bless.
    ~Mary
  • Howard K. Watkins
    Jeff Bleich will make an awesome Lieutenant Governor of California!