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Supreme Court justice helps San Franciscans become citizens

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Twenty immigrants from more than a dozen countries smile and wave small flags during a naturalization ceremony during the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference on Monday at the Marriott Marquis in San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Jaime Chacon was just 14 when he and his family emigrated from a small town in El Salvador to San Francisco.

Natural beauty was not new to him. He traded a view of a staggering nearby volcano for one of the San Francisco Bay, but the journey didn’t come without hardship.

Finances were tight. His father needed help with the family carpet-installation business to help provide for Chacon’s six siblings.

“When I got here, I didn’t even rest,” he said. “I went to work.”

Chacon eventually graduated from Mission High School, and on Monday, eight years after his arrival in San Francisco, he became a citizen of the United States at a naturalization ceremony attended by a Supreme Court justice.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch gave the keynote speech at the naturalization ceremony, perhaps controversially, some attendees noted. As an appointee of President Donald Trump, one of Gorsuch’s first acts on the high court was to rule in favor of the president’s travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch addresses the new citizens during the nationalization ceremony. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Only 20 newly minted citizens were chosen to be naturalized at the annual Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference, held this year for the first time in more than four decades in San Francisco, at the Marriott Marquis Hotel on Fourth and Mission streets.

The conference sees judges, attorneys and other staff from the Ninth Circuit Court meet to discuss matters of the day, but also observes an annual tradition: the naturalization of people. On Monday, 20 immigrants from more than a dozen nations became citizens of the U.S.

Despite his support of Trump’s travel ban, which has been perceived as discriminatory, Gorsuch stood at the podium and preached tolerance to the new citizens as they stood beside the stage.

In fulfilling the search for a life of liberty and pursuit of happiness, Gorsuch said, those “with whom we disagree” must be embraced.

“Among many other things, it truly comes with the duty of having to listen and tolerate other points of views,” he told the new citizens. “And that can be challenging, especially in polarizing times.”

Gorsuch continued, “We have to remember our democracy depends on our ability to reason and work with those who hold very different convictions and beliefs than our own. We have to learn not only to tolerate different points of view, but to cherish them — the cacophony of democracy.”

Jaime Chacon, left, who immigrated to San Francisco from El Salvador at the age of 14, shakes hands with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

It is San Francisco’s love of that very “cacophony” that led Maria Cunningham, an accountant who also gained her citizenship Monday, to fall in love with San Francisco.

Hailing from Northern Ireland and speaking in a thick brogue, Cunningham said she was enamored by San Francisco’s tolerance. A former bartender at the 3300 Club, which burned in an infamous Mission District fire last year, Cunningham recalled her first blush with her beloved city of “misfits.”

“I was behind the bar at the 33 one day, and this guy comes in and he starts saying to me, ‘You are Janis Joplin reincarnated!’ OK then, we’ll work out whether this is a good crazy or bad crazy first,” she said.

Despite this man’s strangeness, the bar and its patrons embraced him. She fell in love with The City and met her husband here. They married in 2010.

Maria Cunningham, who emigrated from Northern Ireland, smiles during the naturalization ceremony. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Gorsuch was not the only speaker to honor the 20 immigrants turned citizens.

Mayor Ed Lee also took to the podium. The United States’ first Chinese-American mayor of a major metropolitan city addressed the diverse new citizens, and hundreds of the mostly white, mostly male judicial community.

“San Francisco is a vibrant, diverse and innovative place with a long tradition of protecting the rights of all of its communities,” Lee told them. He said this is a city “that provides the low-level second-offender with a second chance, the homeless individual with a roof over their head, the immigrant with an education and the addict with a new job.”

Lee also pointedly reminded the judges that San Francisco was first in “banning participation of any kind” in a registry based on religion, national origin or ethnicity. That ordinance stands in defiance of President Trump’s call for a Muslim registry.

“Tolerance must triumph over bigotry,” Lee said, “Acceptance must win over prejudice.”

Though Lee looked to the crowd of judges when delivering that message, he later turned to the immigrants at his right and told them they had fulfilled their duty in becoming citizens. Now, San Francisco has to fulfill its duty to help them succeed.

Maria Lourdes Umadhay, center, who hails from the Philippines, stands next to her daughter during the naturalization ceremony. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

That message was well-received by Maria Lourdes Umadhay, an immigrant from the Philippines and seven-year Sunset District resident, who also became a citizen Monday. Her daughter and her husband smiled as they stood by her side.

For Umadhay, 47, citizenship is not only an achievement in itself, but a gateway to a new life. Now a beauty consultant, she told the San Francisco Examiner she has her sights set on a career in accounting, perhaps with The City, or maybe the private sector.

She’s already taken classes at City College of San Francisco, and is well on her way to achieving her goal.

“The United States is the land of opportunity,” Umadhay said.

And as to why she’s pursuing that opportunity in San Francisco?

The scenery is beautiful, she said. And, “of course, I like the fog.”

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