One came from the west-African nation of Sierra Leone. Her name is Aminata Sesay.
After the ceremony, on the day she became an American, Aminata just beamed.
The 21-year-old student arrived in Philadelphia when she was 10 with her family, who moved to Delaware County a few years later, dismayed by Philadelphia's poor schools.
Aminata's parents, Mohamed and Catherine, understand that education paves the path to success. Aminata now is enrolled in the Anthem Institute, in Springfield, which trains students for careers in the growing fields of health care and technology.
She says that her parents brought the family here, just before a civil war broke out, for "the better economy, for jobs, for better education." She has little memory of her former homeland, but she has high expectations of her new one.
"Freedom of speech" was the first thing she mentioned, followed by the rule of law and the Constitution, which creates a foundation for "opportunity," which is one thing that all new Americans seek. After Anthem Institute, she plans to go to school to become a registered nurse.
A block away, on Market Street, a knot of young Occupiers were bashing the system, not without some legitimate complaint. The newest Americans don't share that disdain because they are the truest keepers of the American Dream. They compare America to a foreign system they actually know, while Occupiers often compare America to an imagined utopia.
On its best day, America wasn't utopia — and never will be. Sometimes we're not even the best America we can be, but our values of freedom, equality and opportunity will forever attract those brave and ambitious enough to claim them.
During the July 4th ceremonies, screen-and-stage star Ellen Burstyn read from the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Army Band played and Mayor Nutter spoke. But the unquestioned stars were the 13 "candidates" for citizenship from Canada, China, Ethiopia, India, Jamaica, Liberia, Moldova, the United Kingdom and Sierra Leone. During Freedom Week, across America, more than 4,000 new citizens — from all four corners of the globe, the majority nonwhite — are being welcomed into our American family.
I know the "candidates" were the stars because when they were introduced, the applause they got was louder and longer than that for Burstyn or Nutter, and when the new Americans happily waved their citizenship papers they got a standing ovation from hundreds of other Americans baking on the Independence Mall lawn.
And yet some insist Americans are anti-immigrant.
They are not. We are not. I am not. The vast majority of us, reflecting our family histories, value immigrants and ask only that they do it the right way, that they fill out the forms, wait their turn and come here legally.
Not surprisingly, Aminata shares that view. "Everyone should go through the same process," she says. It's not fair for those who jump the line to get the same rights and opportunities for which she had to be so patient.
But questions like that couldn't put a damper on her day.
Nothing could do that, not on the day she was applauded for becoming an American. n
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