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Reflections on Citizenship Day

by: Jeff Rogers,

We had a party at my office last week. We celebrated something that, when I thought about it, I'd never experienced before. One of my co-workers was granted U.S. citizenship. She'd had a green card for 25 years, entering the country as a French citizen when she was a child. But she finally felt compelled to become a U.S. citizen. We sat in awe as she described the day of her citizenship test.

It was clearly a day filled with mixed emotions, not just for my friend but for everyone gathered there. While they anxiously waited their turn, the applicants watched as others entered and left the examination room one at a time. Many exited beaming with pride. My friend was still moved as she described the distress on the face of the man who came out just before her turn.

Then my friend's name was called. She had spent over two decades in this country, completed a graduate degree, compiled a good work record, and given birth to a son. But she was suddenly faced with demonstrating that she knew enough to justify the award of citizenship, while proving that she hadn't done anything that might cause the examiner to rule against her.

She flashed back to her mother's admonitions when she was a teenager. Not to drink and drive. Not to use drugs. Not to be arrested - the same things that other parents warn. But in her case, the warnings came with the knowledge that her violations would not simply lead to her being grounded, but possibly to immediate deportation and separation from her family.

All that anxiety returned in the examination room. When she replied that she hadn't left the country for a certain number of years, the examiner looked up and asked if she was sure about her statement. She suddenly remembered that she had been to Canada once and admitted her error, but felt a moment of panic that her memory lapse would be seen in the wrong light.

Finally, the interviewer concluded his questions and simply asked if she could attend the ceremony on Monday. When she said she could, he handed her a form with instructions, congratulated her, and then added seriously, 'Don't do anything wrong until after Monday.' She would have to follow her mother's advice for three more days.

As she left the room and glanced down at the form, it struck her that it was a different color than the one carried by the man who exited before her name was called. While she'd suspected why he had been so distressed, she now knew for certain. In three days, she would be an American citizen. And the other man's life may well have been changed forever.

We were moved by the pride she felt and her obvious excitement. But she was also thankful that she would be able to maintain her French citizenship and avoid the complete loss of what had been her primary identity her entire life. She admitted she wasn't sure how she would have felt if that were not the case.

As happy as we were for her, we were also disturbed by what had finally motivated her to pursue citizenship. After being a productive working member of our society for her entire adult life, she'd felt for the first time a sense of being on the outside of the fence. A feeling that, in some people's eyes, foreigners were, by nature, worthy of some suspicion. For her own sake, and that of her son, a U.S. citizen by birth, she felt it was in her best interests to become a citizen.

As we debate the merits of citizenship and the increasingly divisive issue of immigration, perhaps we would be well served by asking ourselves two questions: Do we want people to join us because we truly are something unique in the world - a country that lives up to our Founders' promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all people in the world? Or do we want citizens whose motivation arises out of a sense of fear and exclusion?

Both bring new life to our culture and society. But the answer likely defines the true value of U.S. citizenship, not just to them, but more importantly, to us.