On Tuesday night, just a week after the most contentious presidential election in modern history, 15 New Yorkers from 13 different countries called themselves Americans for the first time. Gathered in a crowded room at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, America’s newest sons and daughters took part in naturalization ceremonies and pledged themselves to their chosen home.
It was an emotional moment for Yvez Cochez, chief instrument officer at Quattro Financial Advisors. He sat in the front row of the museum gift shop-turned-ceremonial chamber. Since he and his wife first set foot in America on vacation back in 2007, he knew he wanted to live here. As soon as he landed back in Belgium, he met with his boss and demanded a move. “I told him to find me a position in America,” Cochez said, “or I’ll find another company that will.”
In his opening remarks, León Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that immigration is America’s origin story. During the late 1800s, nearly 7,000 working class immigrants called the building that is now the Tenement Museum home. Today, the museum commemorates their journey to citizenship and is also a regular venue for New York City’s naturalization ceremonies. Rodriguez said he presides over at least four of these rites every month. But in light of recent events, this ceremony has taken on a deeper meaning.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, addressed the newly naturalized citizens, sharing her own experiences of moving to America from Ireland. She was only nine years old at the time and she had never seen a bigger or fancier place in her life. “Today, you have become citizens of this nation at a pretty tumultuous time,” Power said. Over the last few months, President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign unfurled a deep-rooted anger towards what the many voters identified as the root of their frustrations: immigrants.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, this last week alone saw hundreds of hate crimes, many of which done in Trump’s name. At the Tenement Museum, the gravity of these months was apparent in the words of the speakers and in the faces of the celebrants. But the mood wasn’t one of despair, but of hope. “Don’t ever listen to the voices that tell you that you have to choose between being a proud American and a proud immigrant,” Powers said. “You can be both. You must be both.”
“America depends on the ambitions that brought you to these shores to make this country greater than it already is,” said Morris J. Vogel, president of the Tenement Museum. “Greater than it already is, or it ever was.”
Following his divisive victory last Wednesday, Trump has continued making headlines by backtracking on some of his more controversial pledges. Some in the room were hopeful that this means the President-elect has since tempered his campaign persona. “I hope and think there is a big difference between the campaign messages and what will really happen going forward,” Cochez said.
“We should give the person who was elected a chance to reduce this negativity,” said Lior Erez, a mechanical engineer from Israel who works for a medical device company based in New York. Erez acknowledged that things seem grim to many Americans, but he was hopeful that Trump and the country will come around. “It’s a democracy,” he said, “and the citizens are human beings.”
Cochez shared the same hope that things would get better. “This country will not go in the wrong way,” he said, “and it’s because of the people. Back home in Europe, there is so much immigration, but not enough integration. Here you see so many people come to this country, proud to call themselves American.”
With their right arms raised, the new Americans pledged their allegiance to a nation that is divided over the issue of immigration. “This is what America looks like,” Powers said, looking towards the country’s newest citizens. “You are what America looks like. As of today, America is as much your country as it is anyone else’s.”