President Harry Truman established September 17th as Citizenship Day. The choice of this date was not arbitrary: today marks the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution – and, it is this hallowed document that defines what it is to be a Citizen of these United States.
Even with the recent surge in post- 9/11 patriotism and with the important choices we face in the upcoming elections, it is disappointing how many of these special commemorative days like June 14’s Flag Day and today’s Citizenship Day pass with so little fanfare. Yet, such days are worthy of more than just a passing nod. Voter apathy (in the upcoming elections perhaps only half of those eligible will actually exercise their right to vote) shows that we take too much for granted the blessings of the ordered freedom afforded by our American experiment in democracy. While we are certainly proud to be Americans whether by birth or adoption, we would do well to reflect more often on both the rights and the duties of citizenship.
While too many of us have become apathetic, there are millions throughout the world that can only dream of the freedom and opportunity we enjoy. More troubling still, there are millions in this country to whom the Constitution’s promise to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not something to be taken for granted. Many –legal residents for a long time – are trapped in bureaucratic red tape, frustrated by long and unnecessary delays in the processing of their applications for citizenship. They have met all the requirements – they want to become part of our society and full fledged citizens. They are simply waiting to take the oath. In the meantime, they cannot vote, they often cannot reunite with family members, and their access to civic opportunities is limited.
Ironically, oftentimes these immigrants –having studied for their citizenship tests – know more about the U.S. Constitution than native born Americans. Having experienced life without the liberties that we Americans take for granted, they readily embrace the values of the Constitution and are eager to contribute to their adopted nation. These immigrants are anxious and willing to embrace the privileges and obligations, the rights and duties of citizenship in this great nation – including many in our nation’s armed forces. Even those here in an irregular status yearn for the chance that would put them on the path of permanent residency and eventual citizenship
Clearing up backlogs and streamlining the application process for our neighbors who are anxious to become Americans will be good for them; it will be good for America. Every time someone raises his or her hand to take the oath of citizenship gives each one of us an opportunity to appreciate anew how fortunate we are to call ourselves Americans. Even in the midst of a polarizing election year, we do well recognize how well our Constitution has served us over the years.
Whether we are already citizens by birthright or naturalization, or whether we are still in a seeming interminable queue awaiting our opportunity to swear allegiance, Citizenship Day is worth celebrating.