I was born in America, so I have no real idea what it would be like to long for citizenship in this country. I take for granted the privileges that have come to me simply because I was lucky enough to be born in a place where the livin’ is easy, relatively speaking. Sure, I rant about politics, and I get all riled up when my values are not shared by our elected officials. In fact lately, like millions of other Americans, I’m appalled by the things happening in Washington, and I worry about the future of our country. But deep down, I know I am free to speak my mind and make a decent living. I sleep safe in my bed and have abundant fresh food and water. I am among the luckiest people on earth.
The other day I witnessed a swearing-in ceremony for 31 new American citizens. The event was held at a public library, and the seats in the auditorium were packed with, not only family and friends of the citizens-to-be, but members of the public as well. On each of our chairs was a sheet of paper with the words to the Star Spangled Banner and the Pledge of Allegiance. In the audience, children who were all dressed up for the occasion waved little American flags. In the front two rows sat the applicants, solemnly looking straight ahead.
A representative of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service began the program by having us all stand for the national anthem. Led by members of the library’s Song Circle, we all sang out, and I found myself standing a little straighter than usual. Next, the emcee called out the names of the countries from which the applicants came; there was a man from Cuba, several people from Ukraine and India, one from Malaysia, and people from Honduras and Mexico. There was a couple from the U.K. and a man from Canada, too. As each country’s name was called, they stood, and we clapped.
One of my favorite moments came from a city councilwoman, who gave a heartfelt speech of welcome to her new neighbors. She told them she had special appreciation for naturalized citizens, because they had chosen their citizenship and worked hard to become Americans. Many had come from so far away, she said, and most native-born Americans could never imagine the kind of hardship they had suffered. As we enthusiastically applauded, the federal agent in charge stepped up to administer the oath of citizenship.
I hadn’t realized that the oath asks that new citizens renounce all “princes and potentates” as well as other governments and ideologies. It requires the oath takers to swear they will defend the U.S. Constitution through combat in the armed forces if necessary. It ends with the words “So help me, God.”
I have to admit I was surprised at the depth of my feelings during the ceremony. It occurred to me that each new citizen would probably sleep better that night, knowing that no one could round them up and send them to a detention center. I’ve heard that the citizenship test each applicant has to take is really difficult, and that most Americans can’t pass it. I was impressed at the new Americans’ English as they spoke with their family and friends after the ceremony.
As they left the auditorium, our newest citizens stopped at a table where volunteers were waiting to register them to vote in their new country. Some of us held out our hands in congratulations, our way of thanking them for their willingness to help make America better. Not great. Better.