…for the judge who presided over my citizenship ceremony, it was his last day before he retired, and he teared up as he told us that swearing in new American citizens had been one of the best parts of his job.

“This is a land of immigrants,” he told us. “Even as you become new citizens of these United States, you must never lose the unique cultures that you have brought from your countries. They contribute to the rich tapestry that is America.”

Is it any wonder that I was thrumming with the auspiciousness of it all?

—quote from Old New Worlds

It was on May 4, 2001, four months before 9/11, that I became a naturalized American citizen before this inspiring judge, and every year when the anniversary rolls around I feel it as a gift. I stubbornly hang on to that sense of wide-eyed wonder, no matter how contentious the issues churning around immigration become, and it always makes me think about the myriad immigrants who have left their imprint here. This is the story of one of them, which I learned about on PBS’s American Masters series.

 

In 1864, a gangling 6’2″ Hungarian immigrant arrived in the United States at the age of 17 as a draftee for the U.S. Union Army. After the war, he made his way down south, where he scrounged a living as a muleteer, baggage handler, and waiter before he was offered a job at a German language daily newspaper. There, he built such a strong reputation as a tirelessly enterprising journalist that he was offered a controlling interest in the paper. By the time he was 25, he was a publisher. Six years later, he became a newspaper owner, spearheading the kind of investigative journalism that exposed government corruption and wealthy tax-dodgers.

Finding himself in New York in 1883, he bought up a newspaper that was in financial straits. In its pages he continued his crusade against public and private corruption; he used the paper to raise public subscriptions to build a pedestal so that the Statue of Liberty could be put up at the entrance to the New York harbor; and the newspaper led with largest circulation in the country.

In 1904, this immigrant who had arrived in America 40 years before, advocated for the founding of a school of journalism. In 1912, one year after his death, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded, and the first prizes—given annually in his name ever since—were awarded in 1917. The immigrant’s name was Joseph Pulitzer, who who had become a naturalized American citizen on March 6, 1867—just one of the countless migrants who have made a contribution to the very best that is America. How can we not be proud?

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