By Mark Luetke
One hundred years ago, a young couple stepped off the train at Toledo’s Union Station and into their future. The journey that brought them here – by cart, ocean steamer, and rail – took more than two weeks. They had no home, job, or ability to understand the English language. With them was an infant daughter: my mother.
Grampa did odd jobs until he found employment in the huge auto parts factory that eventually became Dana. Gramma took in laundry to make ends meet. Over time, they bought a small house, became citizens, and saved enough money to send mom to college.
Their story was part of America’s story at the time. And although it’s not everybody’s story, it is worth mentioning as we reflect on Independence Day, celebrated just last weekend. It was on my mind, too, as I recently sat in the auditorium at Notre Dame Academy, where 23 people participated in a naturalization ceremony to become citizens.
The closing speaker that day was Notre Dame junior, Kiana Nel, herself the daughter of parents who emigrated from South Africa and are now citizens. She read from the poem, “The New Colossus,” posted on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty staring out toward the New York harbor: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”
“I felt honored to speak at the ceremony where people were starting off on a new journey that America is about,” she said. “When you are born in America, you often don’t realize how privileged you are. It was meaningful that our school was able to educate so many students on what naturalization is, and how important it is for all of the people becoming citizens.”
The Honorable Jack Zouhary of the U.S. District Court presided at the Notre Dame ceremony and has been conducting such ceremonies for more than 15 years. The judge rotates the duty with his colleagues, and he was instrumental in moving the monthly ceremonies from the downtown Federal courthouse to various locations, including schools, throughout Northwest Ohio.
Judge Zouhary is himself a first generation American. His parents came here from different Mediterranean port cities at different times. His father, Paul, as a young teenager, came to America in the 1920s with his family who settled in Toledo’s north end. Home, school, church, and work were all within blocks of each other. Judge Zouhary’s mother came to the United States shortly after WWII to visit family already here, and eventually met and married Paul.
Yet the immigrant experience has changed significantly since the 1900s. My grandparents were part of a wave of new Americans in the early 1920s that was 86 percent European, including German, Irish, Polish and Italian. They spoke different languages, but shared the same religious, cultural, and ethnic traditions. The majority of immigrants from Syria and Lebanon that included Judge Zouhary’s parents were Christians, as well. And Jewish immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe concentrated in a few tightly-knit Toledo neighborhoods as a way to preserve their faith and culture.
Today’s arrivals are much more diverse and tend to represent their own unique cultures. In fact, only 13 percent of immigrants now come from Europe; 28 percent are from Asia, 50percent from Latin America, 25 percent from Mexico. Those becoming new citizens at Notre Dame represented 14 countries that include China, India, Ghana, and El Salvador.
They are arriving at a moment when the nation needs them. Labor shortages across the United States have created a demand for foreign workers of all skill levels.
Judge Zouhary remarks: “New citizens mention several themes when they discuss why they want to become an American, highlighting freedoms (Bill of Rights), work opportunities, and rule of law.”
“During the ceremony, I look at their faces when they recite the oath. What I see is great happiness. It’s in their smiles, their eyes, and sometimes their tears. Some of them have traveled a long way; some at great risk; some have left everything behind. They are both relieved and excited to be here, to have finally made it.”
In fact, the image of those new Americans in the Notre Dame auditorium a few months ago is just as inspiring as the memory of my grandparents getting off the train in Toledo in 1922—maybe more.
To paraphrase columnist Peggy Noonan, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal: “These new citizens are normal, regular people in all their human variety–all races, ethnicities, faiths. They work hard, often fled something bad, and want this country to work. They are invested in it.”
Adds Judge Zouhary: “Naturalization is a regular reminder of what our country means to so many people elsewhere. In a word: hope. Our democracy might not be perfect, but we haven’t found a better way yet to provide the freedom that Lady Liberty proclaims. It resonates with so many people around the world, and we tend to forget that.”
To that I say: Amen, Happy Independence Day, and God bless America.
(Thanks to Jill Clever of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library and Stephen Rothschild of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Greater Toledo for research on this story.)