My favorite coincidence: my high school choir was asked to sing at a citizenship ceremony at the federal courthouse in Kansas City only once. It was for the ceremony at which my grandmother would be raising her right hand and taking the Oath of Allegiance, completing a journey that had taken years.
My father had gone with her to the exam, translating the questions for her (applicants aged 50 and over who have lived in the United States with a green card for 20 years are exempt from the English language requirement). The whole family was excited, as we had been studying with her for months to help her learn the answers to the questions. When she passed, we threw a party. It is a major accomplishment.
A few weeks or a month after taking the citizenship exam, applicants for naturalization receive a notification from USCIS that they’ve been scheduled for a ceremony for naturalization. Whole families come to see the culmination of years of paperwork and hoping and the beginning of a new part in someone’s life: when a permanent resident sheds their green card, takes the Oath of Allegiance, and waves a flag as a new American. And a new voter.
Since the very first naturalization law was passed in 1790, naturalized citizens have taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States. Over the years, we have added more requirements, including renouncing allegiances to other states and any titles of nobility, and promising to defend the country when required by law, either by bearing arms, other noncombatant or civilian service.
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
But the most important part of the ceremony happens after it’s over and everyone has signed and received their certificate of citizenship (Yes, even if the President of the United States gives a speech at the ceremony, or if your granddaughter sings the National Anthem): Our new citizens are invited to register to vote as soon as the ceremony is complete. And, in most states, they’re exempt from registration deadlines for state and federal elections. We want, and need, our new citizens to vote.
We at Indivisible have spent the last six months thinking about how our process for introducing new citizens to our country could be better. We could ask better questions on our tests. We could think about citizenship differently, as more than just taxpayers or voters, but as people with civic responsibilities. We could ensure that every naturalization ceremony embraces the diverse backgrounds of those being sworn in and can have meaning. And we’ve all been thinking about how we discuss refugees, immigrants, and new Americans in this election year.
But at the end of the day, we all hope that becoming a citizen is like it was for my grandmother. While it was the product of studying and hard work for her, when it ended, she was surrounded by friends and family, smiling as she registered to vote, almost already on her way to apply for her first U.S. passport. A newly minted U.S. citizen, she and so many immigrants to our country have done us proud. And we at Indivisible are proud to have them join us as Americans, ready to ImagineGov and make our country and our government better.