Immigrants Take Oath at Monticello, Feeling the Weight of the Past

Immigrants Take Oath at Monticello, Feeling the Weight of the Past


Originally published by The New York Times

Just before 9 a.m. on the Fourth of July, the gong on Monticello’s roof rang, silencing the crowd that had gathered to celebrate those vowing to uphold and protect the ideals of the United States.

The sound heralded the pageantry that was moments away, when nearly 70 people would ascend the stairs of Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop plantation in one of the country’s largest outdoor naturalization ceremonies.

“This place for me is for the birth of America, birth of liberty and, now, the birth of my citizenship,” said Joseph Csaba Nagy, formerly of Romania, who arrived Wednesday to take the oath of allegiance in a suit that he had saved for the occasion: a blue jacket with white stars, red pants and a red-and-white striped tie.

But there was subtext to this naturalization ceremony at Monticello, where the legacy of a Founding Father is being rewritten to acknowledge that Jefferson, a slave owner, failed to truly include all when he wrote “all men are created equal.”

The ceremony, one of the country’s largest held outdoors, was at Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop plantation.CreditMatt Eich for The New York Times
“Jefferson’s notion of liberty, while visionary for its time, did not extend to all people,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, the president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, recognizing both the enslaved people who lived and worked at Monticello and the estate’s new public acknowledgment of Sally Hemings, the slave who bore Jefferson’s children.

Looming even more prominently over the ceremony was President Trump’s push for an immigration crackdown, the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Trump administration’s travel ban and the outcry over family separations at the border.

Several of the new citizens had lived in the United States for years, but felt buoyed by now having the right to vote, to be able to weigh in on Mr. Trump’s policies. And of the more than 30 countries represented at the ceremony, many of them — including Mexico, Iran and Canada — have repeatedly incurred the president’s ire.

At the ceremony, the influence of Mr. Trump’s policies was apparent, as a small group of speakers — including Andrew H. Tisch, the businessman and philanthropist — reminded the new citizens of the crucial role immigrants have played in American history and of the importance of embracing democracy.

“Immigrants have literally built America from the ground up,” Mr. Tisch, the keynote speaker, told the crowd as he recounted his family’s immigrant roots. “We need and want immigrants.”

One woman, newly empowered with the rights of an American citizen, announced that she “could not wait to vote,” to enthusiastic applause. And in the shade of a tent that served free cola floats, voter registration clipboards were circulated among the new citizens, identifiable by their commemorative medals and tightly clutched American flags.

Mr. Nagy, 55, who received his green card through the diversity visa lottery program that Mr. Trump has called to end, stood up to briefly share his joy over fulfilling a 20-year dream of becoming an American citizen.

“I was a little sad,” Mr. Nagy said, recalling how he felt about the president’s action. “For me, it was a very wonderful feeling to receive this lottery visa.”


More than 30 countries were represented at the ceremony, including Mexico, Iran and Canada.CreditMatt Eich for The New York Times
But he said that it did not take away from his love for the United States, which started two decades earlier when he visited New York for the first time and marveled at what he saw as the peaceful integration of so many cultures.

“What’s showing is how America became great — why America became great,” he said. “Now I feel completed in that dream from 20 years ago, to become a part of this family.”

Like many of the people naturalized Wednesday, Mr. Nagy broke into a broad grin after reciting the oath, waving to family members in the crowd.

“It reminds me of getting married,” said Melissa Kitto, 40, an entrepreneur originally from New Zealand who resolved to start voting after 14 years of residency in the United States. “It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but when you do it, it’s like wow, this is a big deal.”


Families sought shade after the naturalization ceremony at Monticello.CreditMatt Eich for The New York Times
The magnitude of becoming a citizen, she said, was amplified by the ceremony’s venue, even in the sweltering July heat.

“I thought I was going to be in a small office in D.C.,” Ms. Kitto said. “There’s an energy here, and an atmosphere that’s special.”

On the open lawn, families posed for pictures in front of Jefferson’s gardens, and strangers exchanged congratulations.

Some had come merely to visit Monticello, but were drawn to the emotions of the naturalization ceremony on Independence Day. Others had come to support loved ones and to imagine saying the words of allegiance themselves one day.

“Now he’s not only American in heart, but on paper as well,” said Tamas Nagy, 23, Mr. Nagy’s nephew, as he watched the crowds disperse. His uncle’s ceremony, he said, made him excited for the end of his own path to United States citizenship.

He waited as his Uncle Joseph clasped hands with strangers, many of whom complimented him on his suit. One man scribbled down the phone number of a Romanian acquaintance eager to reach out to a fellow new citizen. But before the man turned to leave, he paused and shook Mr. Nagy’s hand.

“Welcome to America.”

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