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Dean William M. Treanor: How America's Founders Viewed Immigration

September 22, 2017 —

On September 12, 2017, Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor spoke before a group of new American citizens on the day of their naturalization ceremony at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Read his full remarks below.

Thank you, Judge Moss. It is a great privilege to be speaking today.

It is often said that the United States is a nation of immigrants. All of us, except for Native Americans, were either born elsewhere or are the descendants of people born elsewhere. And, as the descendant of immigrants, I am humbled to be in your presence. For many years, I have had on my office wall the naturalization certificate of Dominic McGlynn, the first person in my family to come to this country. Whenever I see that piece of paper, I think of his courage in leaving his family and friends, his bravery in saying goodbye to his home and his country in the sure knowledge that he would never return. It is almost unimaginable to me, but that is what he did, and that is what each of you has done. I am profoundly grateful for his sacrifice and courage, and I know that generations ahead will be grateful to each of you.

All of us are honored by your faith in this country. That is always true, but it is particularly meaningful this week, because we are getting ready to celebrate Constitution Day.

 This Sunday, September 17, is Constitution Day. On that day in 1787, after months of deliberation, 39 delegates of the states signed the Constitution that they had drafted. Constitution Day celebrates both those people and the great document they wrote.

The Constitution was a brave experiment. The Constitution, as it was drafted, was obviously not perfect – the Constitution of 1787, tragically, protected slavery, and it did not protect the rights of women. Yet it was a dramatic advance that was, in the truest sense, historic. In the history of the world, there had never been a nation of such size founded on democratic principles. In a few minutes, you will hear read aloud the moving opening words of the Constitution, the Constitution’s preamble, which begins, “We the People.” This was not a government created by a king. It was not a government created by the general of an army or a religious leader. It was a government created by “We the People.”

No one knew if it would succeed. And, as they were writing the Constitution, the delegates spoke of a critical measure of its success: would people from other countries who treasured liberty become Americans?  

Benjamin Franklin, the son of immigrants, said that his hope was that foreigners seeking a “country in which they can obtain more happiness” would come to the United States. And future President James Madison said, “Should the proposed Constitution have the intended effect of giving stability and reputation to our governments, . . . [those] who love liberty and wish to partake its blessings, will be ready to transfer their fortunes hither.”  [Kettner 227] 

Your presence here – the fact that you have come from, I believe, 42 countries to become citizens of the United States – is proof that this experiment succeeded, that, as President Madison said, “those who love liberty and wish to partake its blessings” would commit themselves to becoming citizens of this country. We are all honored by your decision, and it is moving and appropriate that this ceremony occurs as we prepare to celebrate Constitution Day.

It is also appropriate that this ceremony occurs as we prepare to celebrate this day because the Constitution was, in such critical part, the work of immigrants.  

Some of you know that Alexander Hamilton, one of the most important drafters of the Constitution, came to this country from the Caribbean as a young man. Throughout his career – as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, as a drafter of the Constitution, as a member of President Washington’s cabinet – he was one of the people who most significantly shaped the new nation, and he reflects the truth of the song from the musical Hamilton, “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done).”

But he was not alone at the constitutional convention. When the 39 delegates gathered together in Independence Hall on September 17, 1787, to sign the Constitution on September 17, eight of the people had been born abroad, just as you were. And, during the debates, those eight had profoundly shaped the Constitution in ways large and small. Their experiences as immigrants helped make the Constitution the document it is. They contributed to the details of governance, and, even more, they contributed to the Constitution’s democratic principles, beginning with its opening words.

The person who wrote the words, “We the People,” and placed them at the beginning of the Constitution was James Wilson, a representative from Pennsylvania who had come to America from Scotland. Perhaps more than any of the other 39 delegates, he was the one who fought to ensure that the Constitution reflected democratic principles and that our officials would be popularly elected. And I think his commitment to democracy grew out of his life experience – as someone from a modest background who courageously came to this country alone as a young man, who studied hard, who worked hard, and who rose to become a national leader. He knew that everyone had great contributions to make, that everyone should have a voice, and that everyone deserved a vote.

Today, as we congratulate you, and as we salute you, we also look to you to contribute to this nation’s great experiment in self government, carrying on the tradition of people like the immigrants who participated in the democratic process and helped write the Constitution. Our diversity as a nation – the richness of the backgrounds from which we come, the different perspectives and histories we bring to the issues we confront – is one of our greatest strengths.  This nation needs you.   

Coming from many backgrounds, from many countries, each of us become part of “We,” and part of one people. Today, you become part of We the People. Thank you for the sacrifice and bravery that has brought you to this moment and this courtroom, and thank you for the contributions that I know you will make to this nation as citizens.  

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