Many professions require their members to take oaths (doctors, clergy, attorneys, police officers, elected officials - to name a few). We take an oath when we serve on a jury or testify in court. We exchange vows when we marry. But, taking an oath happens rarely enough in our lifetimes that it causes us to pause and reflect on the obligations and responsibilities we are agreeing to. At Thanksgiving, as we reflect on the past and the many things we are grateful for, it seems timely to also think about the future and the promises we intend to uphold.
November 17, 2006 was a big day. It was the day I took The Oath of Allegiance and became a citizen of the United States of America. It was the day I publicly affirmed my intention to fully honor and respect the freedoms and opportunities that citizenship offers me.
It had been a long awaited day, as it is for all immigrants who choose to become U.S. citizens. For me, someone who migrated from Canada for a three-year work assignment in 1990 and chose to make the U.S. my permanent home when I married my Iowa husband, the journey to citizenship has been 16 years in length.
I carefully chose my outfit. Red nail polish, a white jacket and a black skirt with black pumps (I thought going with a blue skirt might be a little over the top). As directed, I reported at 9:30 a.m. to the Southern District of Iowa second floor courtroom. I had no idea what to expect.
I waited in line with the other individuals who would declare their oath that morning. The time before the 11:00 a.m. ceremony was spent waiting...sharing immigration stories...waiting...getting papers processed...waiting...getting instructions on what was required of us during the ceremony...waiting. Even with the waiting, the morning passed fairly quickly for those who were participating in the ceremony (although probably not for those relegated to the back of the courtroom as observers).
I expected it to be an impressive service and was not disappointed. The gentleman from The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) was cheerful. He welcomed us and patiently described the process. The only words we were required to say were "I will" following the reading of the Oath of Allegiance. He had us practice saying these two words. Apparently we didn't say it with much gusto the first time so four practices later, we nailed it. By now we were all laughing.
After a short break, the ceremony began. With the hammer of the gavel we rose and the Judge entered the room. Court was now in session. The first thing the Judge did was officially suspend the rules about not taking photographs in the courtroom. He looked pleased to be there and he probably was. Officiating at a Naturalization Ceremony is probably one of the more pleasant parts of his job. The Judge welcomed the 83 individuals who were going to become Naturalized U.S. Citizens that morning.
We were presented to the Judge. We had been found to be eligible for citizenship by a USCIS official. That meant that we had met the necessary residency requirements, passed an interview, passed a civics test, passed an English language test and had been found to be of good moral character. Then the 83 names and each person's country of origin were read. I'm sure most of them were mispronounced (mine was), but it didn't matter. We were pleased to be there and it probably wasn't the first time the immigrants in this room had their names mispronounced by well-intentioned individuals whose vocal experience had seldom required them to form the unusual sounds that were found in many of these names. I lost count after more than twenty countries of origin were announced. This was a very diverse group assembled in Central Iowa. I thought about the phrase "melting pot" that is often used to describe the U.S.
Next came the oath. The Clerk of Court read the Oath of Allegiance after which we responded, in unison, with our heartfelt "I will". We were now U.S. Citizens.
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.
The Judge congratulated us and began his remarks by acknowledging that it may have been difficult for us to renounce our prior allegiance. He was right. The process, although emotional, lengthy and sometimes challenging, always felt like the right thing to do - until the moment I had to renounce my prior allegiance. The U.S. does not observe dual citizenship. I reflected back on the uncomfortable feeling I had that day in September after the interview where I learned I was being recommended for citizenship. I had to sign a paper renouncing my allegiance and filled in a blank that asked for prior national country. I wrote the word - Canada. When I called my mom to tell her about my mixed emotions, she was pragmatic (as she always is) and reminded me that since I was not planning to return to Canada to live this was the right thing to do. Still, it felt a little icky and I wished that dual citizenship was still observed. That was, until the day of the ceremony when the Judge provided the explanation I needed.
He told us that we had renounced our allegiance to a foreign government, not to our country of origin. He reminded us that as U.S. Citizens, we had just taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. That did not mean that we had renounced our ties to our national heritage, our family and friends or our ties to our home nation's history and culture. He encouraged us to keep our culture alive and raise our families with knowledge of their ancestry and foreign languages. As a land of immigrants, this is what the U.S. is all about.
That made perfect sense and dual citizenship no longer made sense. Afterall, how could someone hold allegiance to two different governments at the same time? I suppose one could imagine holding allegiance to the governments of the U.S. and Canada at the same time since they are largely founded on similar principles. But, as I had read in the Declaration of Independence, all people are treated equally here and we were all required to go through the same process, regardless of country of origin. Many of the governments that people were asked to renounce allegiance and fidelity from shared little in common with the vision of the founding fathers of the United States of America.
A few more speeches, the Pledge of Allegiance recited by everyone in the courtroom, and the presentation of Certificates of Naturalization wrapped up the formalities.
One of the steps in the process that causes the most consternation for candidates for citizenship is the civics test. To be eligible for naturalization, you must be able to read, write and speak basic English and you must have basic knowledge of U. S. history and government. Both requirements are evaluated in tests conducted during an interview by an officer of the USCIS. Study guides are found at the uscis.gov website and that was where I went in the hopes of gaining enough knowledge to pass the test.
Many of the sample test questions were intimidating. What are the three branches of our government? What country did we fight during the Revolutionary War? How many changes, or amendments, are there to the Constitution? How long do we elect each Senator? How many voting members are in the House of Representatives? What were the original 13 states? Who said, "Give me liberty or give me death"? Who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner? What did the Emancipation Proclamation do? Name the amendments that guarantee or address voting rights? In what year was the Constitution written?
What had started as a necessary task to learn enough to pass a test, ended up being an important education in giving me clarity on what I would agree to do on November 17. I became interested enough in my studies to spend the Labor Day long-weekend, reading the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. Many of my family, friends and colleagues said that I probably had a better knowledge of U.S. history and government than they did. Based on how some of them scored on the sample tests, they were correct.
Benefits and Responsibilities
U.S. Citizenship brings with it many benefits. A main one, the one that prompts many immigrants to seek naturalization in the first place, is the right to vote. This is also the right that was referenced in every speech that morning. From Senator Grassley's speech, to the speeches from representatives of Senator Harkin's office, Congressman Boswell's office, the Secretary of State's office, and a recorded message from the President of the United States, the right to vote is a right that we were strongly encouraged to take advantage of. According to Senator Grassley, 59 percent of eligible voters did not take advantage of this right in the last election. He hoped we might be role models for them to follow.
In addition to the right to vote, there are many other benefits to U.S. Citizenship. Along with the benefits there are also responsibilities. Serving on a jury, tolerance for differences, respect for different opinions, cultures, ethnic groups and religions are responsibilities of citizenship.
If not for the naturalization process, I may never have learned as much about this great country as I have. Natural born citizens are not required to go through this process. As a consequence, many do not have the appreciation for the freedoms and opportunities they enjoy that their immigrant ancestors had.
Since I work for a company with a mission of helping people develop skills and knowledge in pursuit of maximizing their potential, I can't help but wonder if there is a better way for natural born citizens to get to appreciate their history and government (beyond grade 7 history class). This observation is not specifically targeted to the U.S. A realization I had throughout the process is that I should probably invest some time learning more about the history and government of Canada. I may know something about the U.S. from my recent studies, but like natural born citizens in countries around the world, I remain mostly ignorant of the history and government of my native land. If natural born citizens were invited to go through a naturalization-type process prior to voting, I wonder if more would choose to participate in the process of government and turn up at the polls on election day?
I am proud to be a U.S. Citizen today. I know that the 14th, 15th and 19th amendments guarantee or address the voting rights that I now get to enjoy. Immediately following the naturalization ceremony, I registered to vote.
I hereby declare, on oath, to fully honor and respect the freedoms and opportunities that citizenship offers me.
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