Federal judge talks civic duty with Butterfield students
BY KATLYN SMITH firstname.lastname@example.org | @Katlyn_eSmith December 18, 2013 7:32PM
U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan gave Butterfield School students a look at the path to citizenship for immigrants. "This is a great country," he said. "This is a country of opportunities." | Katlyn Smith/Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 20, 2014 7:42AM
To make complex, hot-button concepts like immigration and constitutional rights understandable for third-graders, Butterfield School in Libertyville invited U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayant this month.
But initially, the youngsters were eager to hear about the bad guys.
Der-Yeghiayan, the first immigrant of Armenian descent to be named a federal judge, recounted one high-profile case: the bank robber who made a bold escape from a Chicago high-rise jail using bed sheets last December.
“He scaled down 17 floors and escaped,” Der-Yeghiayan said.
One student cut to the chase: “Did you ever arrest him?”
The FBI nabbed the fugitive, one of two who broke out of the jail, about two weeks later, Der-Yeghiayan said.
Some students were visibly relieved.
“I decide what the punishment will be,” Der-Yeghiayan matter-of-factly said of his job.
Der-Yeghiayan rarely stuck to a lesson plan and welcomed questions about civic duty.
“Do you have to vote?” one student asked.
“If you don’t exercise your vote, than you cannot complain when things don’t go your way,” Der-Yeghiayan said. “You understand you don’t have to do anything in the United States ... You don’t have to go to school if you don’t want to. But then, what happens to you? All your classmates get educated. They become leaders in the community.”
Der-Yeghiayan also walked students through the path to citizenship for immigrants, steps he took himself.
Der-Yeghiayan was raised in Lebanon after his relatives fled the Armenian genocide in the early 1900s. Arriving to the states as a college student, he later became a U.S. citizen in 1997 during law school.
“There was a belonging, a sense of pride,” Der-Yeghiayan said in an interview. “It was the happiest moment in my life.”
Presiding over citizenship ceremonies, the former immigration judge often shared his own accomplishments with new Americans.
“I don’t tell this to brag about myself,” Der-Yeghiayan said. “I tell you this so you know the same opportunities are available to each one of you or your children or your grandchildren.”
He conducted a mock ceremony for Butterfield students, ordering them to stand, raise their right hand and recite the oath of citizenship.
The crowd hushed when he gave each student a pocketbook copy of the U.S. Constitution with a letter from the White House congratulating the “new” citizens.
“It’s awesome,” a beaming Emma Haas, 8, said as she held the letter.
He encouraged the young students to take advantage of their education and take pride in their country.
“Notwithstanding all the problems people complain about, this is the best country in the world because of its people,” he said. “Not because of its structures, not because of its mighty powers — it’s because of the people.”