For the many immigrants who still continue to land on America's shores, citizenship is the ultimate privilege – never a right – that lies at the end of a tortuously circuitous road of requirements, bureaucratic nitpicking, and, finally, a citizenship test. Pass it, swear an oath, and – ta-dah! – you’re a citizen, no longer a resident in America but an American. To the aspiring few, this test is the most important in their lives.
This is on top of other considerations. It’s never easy living in a foreign – sometimes alien – land, where the customs, habits, and manners differ significantly from one’s own home. The locals gabble on in that indecipherable English they’re so fond of; they also seem to practice a variation of football played almost exclusively with one’s hands! Then there’s the difficulty of finding a job – a good, decent, and respectable one – in this economy and possible (or rather, sadly, probable) episodes of racism; but slowly, confusion develops into clarity. It’s not easy to be a part of the huddled masses yearning to be free, but aspiring immigrants claws, works, and toils their way into citizenship.
It’s hard to describe what acquiring a new citizenship means. It’s the culmination of years of toil. It’s sacrificing an identity you were literally born with; it’s subscribing to a whole new notion of what it means to be you. No matter what contemporary seers predict about the transnational world and the advent of the rootless citizen of the world, society – with its legal obstructions and bureaucratic requirements – revolves around national-based conceptions of citizenship and, more importantly, of belonging.
After the trials and travails of residency, the citizenship test itself can seem rather anti-climactic, even trivial. (And sometimes, even wrong.) Questions like, “What is the name of the national anthem?” or “What is the name of the Vice-President?” seem nearly too easy. This civics test is administered, usually, in a small room by a government employee whose irritation at dealing with the previous stammering applicant is etched on furrowed brows. Get six out of ten right and you’re one swearing-in ceremony away from citizenship. When the interviewer gets to “What caused the Civil War?”, you reel off like Ken Burns, stopping only after the interviewer informs you that “slavery," uttered three paragraphs ago, was enough.
The test itself – a requirement, no doubt – is just a formality. After whatever personal story and sacrifice one endures to get to that stage, this final stage is uniform and universal, applied equally and without prejudice to all that have endured so far. The hard bit was in the years before. New citizens have already triumphed over the odds; the final test is the period that ends the sentence, “I am an American.” Knowledge of civics does not make you an American – or even a well-rounded one – but it does indicate that, for all our disagreements on political, social, religious, or ethnic differences, we hold – in common property – similar values and ideals on which to base the American way of life. The newly-minted citizens who take their pledges every year best represent that melting pot motto, e pluribus unum.
Sadly, even as new citizens strive to better themselves and to become an American in the eyes of the law, those born with citizenship show a depressing ignorance. When it’s not a flat requirement, civics and social studies fall to the wayside in school. Ideas and ideals that a citizen is meant to be fluent in are expected but not taught. One wonders just how many natural-born citizens, if pressed, would pass the immigrants’ final formality before citizenship and how many would be denied at the last.
Arguably, in this respect, new citizens are "better" than natural-born citizens.
Merely being able to rattle off a civics lesson doesn’t necessarily make one a good citizen and responsible stakeholder in the country. But it does contribute to the texture, tenor, and quality of the dialogues we share about what it means to be a citizen. It gives citizens and fluent residents a mutual platform of understanding, sets the parameters of civil discussion, and establishes the freedoms – and boundaries – of our rights and commitments to, in the end, our democracy. And these are lessons we should all learn – one way or the other, from distant shores to these – to keep the American Dream preserved.
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