Alex Kotlowitz, The New Yorker
Tree times a year, Judge Sarah Evans Barker, a federal district judge for the Southern District of Indiana, oversees the swearing in of new citizens. Barker, like most judges, relishes these proceedings, since they’re ordinarily such festive occasions. “You feel the pressure to rise to the level of excitement,” she told me. By choice, Judge Barker handles the naturalization ceremony that falls around the Fourth of July. It’s an elaborate affair, held on the lawn of President Benjamin Harrison’s home, under a tent. There’s live music, and Barker hands out boxes of sparklers to the new Americans. This year, she was also scheduled to conduct the ceremony held nine days after the election, and she worried that what joy people felt would be tempered by fear. “I was concerned about what to say to people who had been buffeted about by the harsh rhetoric,” she told me, “and I wanted to do what I could to soothe their concerns.”
On the morning of November 17th, in her courtroom in the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, in downtown Indianapolis, Judge Barker delivered a heartfelt speech that reads as an apology as much as it does a call-to-arms. She addressed sixty-eight immigrants, from places as varied as Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along with their families. Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution handed out small American flags. And representatives from the offices of the state’s senators and congressmen were also in attendance, along with a representative from the state’s bar association and the U.S. Attorney’s office. Barker began:
For more than thirty years, whenever I have had the privilege of presiding over a naturalization ceremony such as this, I typically have delivered upbeat, hopeful remarks. Today, I want to talk about your responsibilities as new citizens. In light of the turbulent events in recent weeks, which played out as part of the political campaigns and were characterized by some really ugly, divisive, and demeaning words and hate-filled, violence-tinged name-calling, your responsibilities as new citizens have become more important than ever. You will now be called upon to do your parts to help build and maintain our country’s best values and highest principles and historic traditions.
Judge Barker was just getting wound up. A little background here: from 1969 to 1972, Barker worked in Washington, D.C., first for Congressman Gilbert Gude, of Maryland, and then for Senator Charles Percy, of Illinois, both Republicans. She served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana before Ronald Reagan, who was then President, nominated her, in 1984, for the federal bench. She’s been around long enough that, this past September, there was a courtroom in Indianapolis’s U.S. Courthouse named after her. She’s plainspoken and forthright. A few years ago, at a public event, she chided a handful of appellate judges, asking them to please refrain from being rude in their decisions that overturn lower courts’ rulings. She told them, as it was reported to me by someone at the event, that she knew she didn’t always get it right, but that “we’re all doing our best.” So those who knew Judge Barker weren’t surprised by the straightforward tenor of her observations to the new American citizens on November 17th.
The harsh words that have been spoken over the past few months were indefensible and unkind, testing the strength of the ties that hold us together as a country. I imagine that many of you, in particular, felt the sting of these attacks and heard them in personal terms. The qualities long associated with our country in defining the ways we strive to treat one another—with fairness, tolerance, compassion, equality, civility, and freedom—are likely the very things that caused you to choose to come here to live your lives and raise your families and pursue your vocations and to share your best gifts. Lately, these qualities seem in short supply. I can’t defend or excuse such attacks—I, too, felt their sting and regretted the fear that they engendered—but, today, as we gather on this special day, I hope maybe I can restore your hope and calm your fears and renew your sense of confidence . . . Remember that we Americans are a resilient people, and this includes you now, too. Our institutions of government are strong, and our society is much bigger and greater than any small group of people who have chosen to test our stamina. Each of us has to resolve to join the effort, doing our part to speak up as policy is being formulated and ideas are being aired. On the nettlesome issues surrounding immigration policy in the United States, no group of American citizens is better qualified to contribute to this debate than you are. Help our elected leaders figure out a workable, humane, fair, and just solution. Help our policymakers shape a fair and just narrative that works for all people.
These remarks have not received the attention of the strikingly unwelcoming rebuke delivered by a federal magistrate judge, John Primomo, in San Antonio, Texas, who, at a naturalization ceremony after the election, told the new citizens, “I can assure you that whether you voted for [Trump] or you did not vote for him, if you are a citizen of the United States, he is your President and he will be your President. And if you do not like that, you need to go to another country.” Judge Primomo, who made national news for his speech, has since announced his retirement. Barker’s comments have largely gone unnoticed. A friend who is a federal magistrate judge suggested that I read her remarks, which appeared in the Indiana Lawyer, a biweekly publication with a circulation of roughly six thousand. My friend told me, “I was inspired that a member of the judiciary said all this.”
Judges, especially federal judges, are not accustomed to responding to reporter’s inquiries, but Barker seemed eager to talk about this moment, up to a point. When I reached her on the phone and asked if she could be more specific about what troubled her during the election, she got flustered. “One of my concerns, this is going to put me in the way of slings and arrows. I guess I don’t read Twitter, but keep me out of harm’s way, please.” She paused, and then sighed. “I guess the genie’s already out of the bottle.” (If there’s any doubt which Presidential candidate she was referring to as the purveyor of all the nastiness and brutishness toward immigrants, in her speech she cited Hillary Clinton’s concession speech as one filled with “hope and gratitude.” I did ask her why she didn’t mention Donald Trump by name, and she replied, in an e-mail, “There was a lot of harsh and divisive language used during the past year, with plenty of blame to go around. I’m pretty sure my audience understood what I was referring to.”)
Judge Barker told me that usually her addresses at naturalization ceremonies have “a patriotic push,” but, she said, “on this occasion, I felt a need to find ways to explain these times to the new citizens, to leave them grounded and welcome.”
There’s a moment in the speech when it feels as if she’s giving a pep talk, maybe even partly to herself. “Don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t be overwhelmed or downhearted, don’t give up on your dreams or lose sight of all the good and important things that brought you to these shores and to this day.”
She concluded, that day, by telling the sixty-eight new Americans:
I welcome you today to your new life as citizens of the United States, and remind you in the clearest words I know to say to you: You are welcome here! You are welcome here! Now it is up to you to assume the important responsibilities of citizenship, which means to join the struggle to make this country as good and kind and just and welcoming as you imagined and hoped and perhaps prayed that it would be when you first embarked on your journey to become a citizen. I say again, you are welcome here. Don’t ever forget that, and if anyone ever challenges you on that, you tell them Judge Barker said so on this day you became a citizen.
Afterward, as she usually does, Judge Barker personally handed out the naturalization certificates and posed for pictures with the new citizens and their families, many of whom, she said, thanked her for what she had to say.