An Immigrant Becomes A Citizen

On Jan. 7, at the Abraham Ribicoff Federal Building in Hartford, my wife (Sahar Usmani-Brown) was among the 55 new U.S. citizens sworn in at a naturalization ceremony.

In her case, it came some 14 years after—having grown up in New Delhi—she received a J-1 visa, which was eventually followed by permanent residency in the U.S.: a “green card.”

Participants had to take an “Oath of Allegiance,” before everyone recited or read the Pledge of Allegiance, as well.

It appeared that, with the possible exceptions of Australia and Antarctica, every continent was represented among the 55 new citizens (eight of whom reportedly requested name changes).

Joining the American “Tapestry”

The federal official presiding this month was U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant, who called it both an “honor” and a “pleasure” to welcome the new citizens.  “We make our nation greater” through “naturalization,” she said; “the diversity of this nation” and its “cross-fertilization” make it “great.”  Immigrants to the United States, she declared, “challenge us” and “make us more creative.”

Citing contemporary examples from Madeleine Albright,  Gloria Estefan, Martina Navratilova and Harry Belafonte to historical figures Felix Frankfurter, Joseph Pulitzer, and Levi Strauss, Judge Bryant explained that rather than the metaphor of a “melting pot,” she prefers a “tapestry” – woven from “threads of many colors and textures.”  Immigrants, she asserted, make this country more “resilient, stronger, smarter, more resourceful.”  In conclusion, she said “thank you” to those who had chosen to become American citizens – and even evoked, decades in advance, the contributions of their posterity in subsequent generations.

The gravity and excitement of the occasion were leavened with some quiet chuckles, as my wife—like all other naturalizing citizens—had to attest that, since her interview December 29, she had done nothing nefarious.  For example, she had to indicate that while being loyal to the U.S., she had not “practiced polygamy” or been a “habitual drunkard.”

Civics Knowledge Tested

The preparation for that December interview had involved my wife’s studying a set of 100 questions related to U.S. history and government.  Expecting to be asked ten and needing to answer at least six correctly for a passing score, she was relieved to get the first six right, allowing the examiner to stop there.  Among the questions: the year the Constitution was written, 1787—as opposed to its ratification or that of the Bill of Rights.

The 100 questions cover not only the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and other amendments, and early U.S. history (e.g., the original 13 states), but also such areas as wars involving the U.S.; the movement for civil rights; and current events.  For example, one has to be prepared to name the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and the speaker of the House of Representatives—a position whose occupant had changed from John Boehner to Paul Ryan since the study guide had been printed.

Locally, free classes are available to help candidates study for the U.S. citizenship test, Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon at the Literacy Volunteers room in Gateway Community College; explore additional options through New Haven Adult Education or the New Haven Free Public Library.

At least eight states, including Arizona, are beginning to require that all students pass a test drawn from those same 100 questions, in order to graduate high school.

Whether that’s the best way to advance knowledge of history and civics is debatable; certainly there is ample room for improvement.  Nationally in 2014, just 23 percent of 8th-graders were “at or above proficient” in their knowledge of civics, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

From our nation’s founders, to 19th-century figures such as Horace Mann, to educators, parents, and others today, many have advocated further integration of history and civics with instruction in other subjects—something fundamental to citizenship.

“Rights” and “Responsibilities”

Upon naturalization, citizens receive a list of their “rights” and “responsibilities.”

The identified rights range from freedom of expression and worship to a fair trial, voting, and the Declaration’s ideal of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The enumerated responsibilities: to “support and defend the Constitution”; to “stay informed” and “participate in the democratic process”; to “respect and obey” laws as well as “the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others”; to “participate in your local community” and pay taxes “honestly, and on time”; to “serve on a jury when called upon”; and finally to “defend the country if the need should arise.”

It seems useful, even for lifelong U.S. citizens, deliberately to ponder such matters.  They are not to be taken for granted, and a greater appreciation for them can enhance civility and civic action alike.

Immigrants, Including Refugees, in National and Historical Context

Immigration, including of refugees but also more broadly, has been in the news.

Eliza Griswold, in the New York Times Magazine, focused on Syrian refugees—whom IRIS has welcomed here to New Haven, with support from local organizations and residents (including this one)

Concerns about terrorism have affected popular attitudes toward refugees and other migrants, with the presidential election campaign fueling suspicions about border security—especially amid economic insecurity.

The event in which my wife participated was modest, compared with that at which President Obama recently appeared at the National Archives (with a “dreamer” among the new U.S. citizens), or the assembly of hundreds that Yale University hosted last year.  This month, the audience included my mother, who left Germany as a teen in 1953, arrived at Idlewild (now JFK) Airport speaking little English, attended high school in California, and became a U.S. citizen in Seattle in 1958.  She recalled that ceremony had included remarks from the late U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson.

Yet regardless of whether the venue is Connecticut or Washington, D.C., whether the welcoming remarks are delivered by the president of the United States, a president of a university, a member of Congress or a federal judge, there is a majesty when this country of immigrants renews itself. 

Naturalized Americans swear an oath to their new nation, as they should.  But they remain global as well as U.S. citizens, connecting this country to others on a planet of seven billion and counting.

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posted by: Paul Wessel on January 29, 2016  2:11pm

Thanks, Josiah.  Very nice piece about our country’s majesty, as you put it.  In the midst of all the hysteria, it’s good to reaffirm what our country really is about.

posted by: M.E. Smith on January 29, 2016  2:46pm

Thanks for sharing, Josiah. I couldn’t agree more with Judge Bryant’s statement that immigrants make this country more “resilient, stronger, smarter, more resourceful.”

posted by: StevenInglese on January 29, 2016  3:11pm

Just when my hope for this country grows dimmer with every presidential debate I watch, an event like this makes me really proud to be an American and gives me reason to be hopeful again.  With the addition of Sahar to our citizen ranks, we just became a better, stronger country. She is a delightful person that brings so many positive attributes, we citizens born here should contribute as much to our country as Sahar does already!

posted by: Walt on January 30, 2016  6:49am

An inspiring story!

Welcome and congratulations to all.

posted by: Bradley on January 30, 2016  8:32pm

Congratulations Sahar!

I favor an open immigration policy and believe that extensive immigration provides benefits, on balance, to the country as a whole. But most immigrants are not as well educated as Sahar (who I had the pleasure of meeting several years ago). Current immigration policies impose costs on Americans who did not go to college by making a tough job market even tougher. Part of Trump’s attraction for this population is based on xenophobia, pure and simple. But immigration has a substantially different economic impact on someone whose education ended with high school than someone with an Ivy League education. This is not an argument for restricting immigration, but we do need to recognize that immigration policies create winners and losers.