Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie
Remarks at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Baltimore Field Office
September 30, 2020
Thank you, Director. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for this high honor. I’m going tell you a story from 1894.
A young girl from Castelmola, Sicily, stepped off of a boat in the Port of New Orleans. At that time New Orleans was the busiest port in the United States, even busier than New York City. She only spoke Italian. She had with her her mother. Her father had passed away from violence back in Sicily, and she entered a world not speaking the language of the new land that she had entered, but because her mother instilled in her the values of freedom in this new country, she created a family that began a business that still exists in the City of New Orleans today. You can go there and her name is on the bakery, Gambino’s Bakery.
That little girl was my great-grandmother. I had the great privilege of knowing her for the first twenty years of my life. And she reminded me why people from all over this planet work, strive, sacrifice to come to this land, to achieve the title that you all now have – citizen.
And it’s an interesting title because it was first remarked on by the greatest of all Americans, George Washington. When he stood to take the oath of office as our first president, he addressed the assemblage, “My fellow citizens.” He said that word citizen is the prize that your fellow Americans fought for during out late war.
Now General Washington did something that was unheard of in the world at that time. He had served eight years as president, as the chief executive of this new land. In other places he would have been considered a king, but he took a dramatic step. He took a step back and he relinquished his title as president and he said, “I return to have the most important word than anyone can imagine.” And that word is citizen.
Everyone who has raised a hand here today now joins that legion, the legion of American citizens. Now a couple of times in our history, presidents as diverse as Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman, people you have studied about, actually added a new word to citizen. When Thomas Jefferson left the White House in 1808 he said, “I now relinquish the title of President of the United States and accept the title of sovereign.” Harry Truman in 1953 said the same thing. He said, “I go home to Independence Missouri not as the President of the United States, but as the sovereign of my own future. A sovereign citizen of this republic.”
I will tell you, just like my great-grandmother, Josefina Gambino, you are twice the citizen. You have decided to put everything that you knew behind yourselves to come to this land and swear allegiance to a new flag and a new oath and, by the way, as you know from your studies, that National Anthem that you heard was composed about 10 miles from where we are sitting today, outside of Ft. McHenry.
As the people of the United States the citizen soldiers of the United States like our specialists from Cameroon, fought off the ships of the greatest empire the world had ever known, when everyone on the planet from Napoleon down, said that there was no way that these people could prevail. But because they valued and revered the title of citizen, they stood, they stood at that post as tens of thousands of shells rained in on them. The British retreated, and the flag that you have sworn allegiance to was still standing, after hours and hours of bombardment.
So, I want to leave you with a quote from another citizen soldier, a fellow named Alvin York. Alvin York was a very humble man. He grew up in the mountains of east Tennessee. He didn’t have much of an education. He believed in his faith and he believed in his country. And when he was called upon to serve, he became the most famous American soldier of World War I. In one action against a vastly superior German force, Sergeant York captured 132 German soldiers. He single-handedly killed 15.
Why did he do it? Because he believed in something bigger than himself. Something that you all have sworn to today.
And he said, when he was asked later what he felt like after receiving our nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, he said, “Liberty and freedom and democracy are so very precious that you do not fight to win them once, and then stop. Liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those people who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to hold them.”
General Washington said if you’re citizens by birth or citizens by choice, you are first and last an American. And I will reiterate to you what I said earlier. Because of everything that you have done to be here today, you already twice the citizen. You are the living embodiment of what those Revolutionary War soldiers fought for well over 200 years ago, and what those soldiers at that little Ft. McHenry did when they stood up against the might, the great empire. You are part of that legacy now, and it is my very great honor to call you for the first time as Thomas Jefferson said, and as Harry Truman said, sovereign citizens of this great republic.
So God bless you and your families and everything you do and will do for this country. Thank you all for the honor allowing me to share just a few thoughts. Thank you all very much.