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On Becoming a U.S. Citizen

I am sipping an early morning Starbucks bold Italian brew on this gorgeous Seattle Fourth of July and reflecting on what it means to be a U.S. citizen. Today, across the country, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will be holding large-group naturalization ceremonies in stadiums, concert halls and other big venues to coincide with our country’s independence day. The ceremonies will be solemn on the one hand, and full of pomp and circumstance on the other, as those taking the oath of allegiance celebrate their new citizenship status on one of the most patriotic days of the year. Having been born in the U.S. myself, I can’t possibly imagine what it must feel like to achieve the lifelong dream of U.S. citizenship from the perspective of someone born abroad. However, I have been to a few of these ceremonies in the past to see my clients take the oath of allegiance, and I always get goosebumps. The room is always full of people from many different lands, who came here for such diverse reasons as job opportunities, falling in love, uniting with family, escaping economic or environmental hardship, or fleeing physical abuse or oppression. Some were even brought here as children and always thought they were U.S. citizens until as adults they learned they were not automatic citizens. Naturalization ceremonies are one of the happiest services provided by USCIS and the courts. And, to their credit, they always do a nice job making the ceremony a pleasant and meaningful experience.

When I ask my clients why they want to apply for naturalization, the most common reason given is the “desire to participate in our system” or to vote. Another common reason for some who have had green cards for many years, is because their native country finally allows their nationals to have dual citizenship or because long time permanent residents finally “feel American.” Other reasons include not wanting to jeopardize having a green card taken away due to a criminal or legal mishap or abandonment of residence. Still other reasons are to qualify for scholarships, or to obtain top level security clearances or employment opportunities for certain military, government and private sector jobs. Ability to sponsor relatives is sometimes given as a reason to become American. Others have spent years learning English and studying for the test or have worked two jobs to raise the high filing fees and now feel ready to apply and be successful. Still others have served our country through military service. Whatever the reasons, new Americans undertake this solemn oath of allegiance with dedication and excitement. Many of these reasons and others are shown in a new film by Alexandra Pelosi, the daughter of Nancy Pelosi in her new documentary film, “Citizen USA: A 50 State Road Trip” in which Ms. Pelosi interviews new Americans around the country. The film airs tonight on HBO at 9pm.

Being American As a State of Mind
The citizenship ceremonies being conducted across America today are the culmination of highly technical requirements and procedures, besides being emotionally exciting for the participants and their families. Many “followed the rules” the entire way of their immigration journey while others may not have, but found ways to lawfully immigrate in the end. Some have been here just a short time, while others have been here for years.

However, there are many people for whom “being American” is a state of mind only. While most U.S.-born citizens rarely take time to pause and reflect on the enormous privilege they have to be American, there are other people living among us who currently have no chance of becoming American citizens, but have for all intents and purposes grown up in America and feel American to the core of their souls. They are the Dream Act youth – the ones who would benefit from the Dream Act pending in Congress in one form or another for the last 10 years. If Congress would just get off its duff and pass the Dream Act, thousands of young people who are American in their souls as well as in their dedication to serve our country could be set on the path toward citizenship rather than languish aimlessly in the underground in what would otherwise be the start of their careers. They have grown up here most of their lives, have no allegiance to or knowledge of any other country, who desire to go to college and/or join the military. They all want to give back to America in one way or another. They have already shown they are a politically astute and well-versed in how to effectuate change. They are force to be reckoned with. Although the various versions of the Dream Act would put these kids on a ridiculously and unnecessarily long path to citizenship, at least they would be on the road, while their current road to nowhere is no fault of their own. As I said in a previous post, A Good Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.

Ask every one of the Dream kids, and they will tell you that they feel American and are American in all respects except having a piece of paper and the right to vote. Aside from living in fear of deportation, they live with stresses most American teens and young people don’t live with: no legal right to drive in most states, no right to work, no right to attend college or get financial aid in many states, and no right to pursue a future consistent with their talents or dreams. However, they grew up with their U.S.-born neighbors, played soccer or baseball together, participated in Scouts, took music lessons, learned about U.S. and state history, attended countless Fourth of July barbecues and watched fireworks every year that they have been in the U.S. Some are valedictorians. Others are born leaders. Still others have started nonprofits or private businesses. Most have lived in America longer than many of the people being naturalized today. “Papers:The Movie” documents the Dream Act youth and their parents, teachers and mentors who have dealt with the multiple hardships these youth experience.

Let’s hope that many of today’s newly naturalized citizens will exercise their new status by writing to Congress and demanding passage of the Dream Act so that this group of young people may someday experience the emotional high and awesome responsibilities of becoming naturalized citizens.