“…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 take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God."
When you read these words, what vision comes to your head? Many envision clean-cut, members of the military who are standing at attention and saluting a flag. The individuals taking this oath are not uniform-clad, young women and men, however. They are a diverse group of individuals of many different faiths and ranging in age from 22 to 78. These woman and men hail from over two-dozen countries and, in addition to English, speak over fifteen different languages. Their professions include student, doctor, computer engineer, mechanic, health care worker, civil engineer, housekeeper, teacher, researcher and retiree. They are about as diverse as a group can get, yet they all have one thing in common – they have just become U.S. Citizens. In doing so, they have raised their right hands and taken this solemn Oath.
Their stories and sacrifices are as diverse as the religions, countries, and languages represented. Many of the women and men are willing to share their stories – stories that normally start with humble beginnings; are marked by immense challenges and struggle; and reveal the deep belief systems and great faith that carried these women and men forward in their journeys. Some stories bear the scars of extreme poverty, religious persecution, and violence. Imagine how moving it is to witness an elderly woman, who fled her home country and sought refuge in the United States, speaking the words of that Oath. Imagine hearing her voice above all others and seeing her raise the cane that she requires to walk because of the beatings she suffered, saying with confidence and clarity that she would bear arms to support and defend this great nation…so help her God.
In a brief second, you may see a glimpse of pride, but the predominant emotion resounding in the conversations with these New Americans is that of tremendous gratitude. The enthusiasm of the New Americans is infectious and inspiring and it is reflected in the faces of the families and friends who have come out to support them. Their positive energy transfers to the officials who make speeches in their honor and administer the Oath. The students, volunteers, and community members who have come out to participate in and witness this special celebration are also inspired and deeply moved. Those leaving the celebration still beam with great patriotism and pride in their community and country.
This is just a snapshot of what I have observed as an organizer of a special Naturalization Oath ceremony in my community. This year marked the third anniversary of “Howard County Welcomes New Americans,” a special naturalization ceremony held in coordination with the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services and hosted by the county and leading community and faith - based organizations. Organizations like, FIRN (Foreign-born Information & Referral Network), a non-profit that has served the foreign-born community in Central Maryland for nearly 35 years.
Over the seven years that I served on FIRN’s Board of Directors, we successfully advocated for change in our county and in our state on numerous occasions. We worked with the county to convene the Ethnic Community Roundtable and to hold an Ethnic Community Summit. We sought and received a substantial increase in funding to support our growing foreign-born population. We supported initiatives to increase access to higher education for our immigrant neighbors. We also held a number of events that welcome, celebrate and honor the rich diversity of our community.
The Special Naturalization Ceremonies have been amongst the most memorable and the most effective form of advocacy for our immigrant neighbors, if not a bit unexpected. When we were planning that first event back in 2013, we had to engage in a good bit of advocacy and coordination to get it off the ground. At that time, our prayer was simple - that we would host a special celebration that would welcome, respect, and honor the achievements of these New Americans. What we found was that the ceremony had the added benefit of inspiring others in our community to reflect on their own immigrant roots and the responsibility we all have as community members to welcome newcomers.
We also found that the government officials and community leaders that we invited to contribute or participate in the event stayed for the reception that followed and congratulated the New Americans and their families. They took the time to stop and listen to their stories and their struggles - not just the struggles that occurred in their country of origin, but also the significant challenges they faced when trying to acclimate to the U.S. and access services in our community. They asked questions and shared contact information.
As an immigration attorney and immigrant advocate at CLINIC, I am used to being in a position of representing immigrants who do not have direct access to decision-makers and those who are unable to speak for themselves. Year after year, this event has offered a unique opportunity for the newest Americans amongst us to use their own voices and inspiring actions to advocate for themselves and others in their community. By doing so, they have taken their first step in fulfilling their responsibility as citizens to become civically engaged, to support and defend the U.S. Constitution – they are the new generation of advocates in action.
Jill Marie Bussey is Advocacy Attorney at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC)
Photo by Vu T.H. Nguyen