Celebrating America's Newest Citizens

On September 17, the U.S. celebrated Citizenship Day, recognizing those who have become U.S. citizens. For most people, this day goes by with little fanfare, like many holidays. I only learned about this occasion 10 years ago, when I became Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs for New York City, and since then, I have always thought of it as a day that unites all Americans, in commemoration of our immigrant heritage and our commitment to the United States. For me, it's a day that is deeply related to my personal story, for others, it's a story that perhaps speaks to their parents' or grandparents' histories. Whoever the new citizen is, or was, in your family, the day is a cause for celebration. After all, citizenship remains an important milestone towards political participation and one that touches the lives of many new Americans each year.

In 2002, as Commissioner, I stood next to Mayor Bloomberg at 26 Federal Plaza in New York City as he swore in new citizens from around the world. In a similar ceremony in December 2000, I had become a citizen as well, ending an intimidating and convoluted immigration journey that took 17 years. In addition to me, many others in my family have made the journey from India, or Belize, to call the U.S. their home. In all cases, it took more than 10 years to become citizens, as we navigated paths from student or business visas to "green cards" and then citizenship. Around 700,000 immigrants become U.S. citizens (the 700,000 refers to naturalizations) every year, and around the country, an estimated 8.5 million are eligible to be citizens but have yet to do so.

A critical benefit, and obligation, of citizenship is the opportunity to vote. But for many immigrants, the application process is psychologically and financially prohibitive. The filing fee is currently $595, plus $85 for biometrics in some cases, for a total of $680. That's a high bar for hourly-wage employees and for many others in today's economy. Before ponying up the fee, you have to be prepared to renounce your citizenship in most cases. While some might argue that immigrants should be willing to prove their loyalty to their new country, this is a tough decision to make for a number of reasons. If you were a citizen of India who renounced your citizenship, you must obtain and pay for a visa to return. Naturally, you'll think once, twice, and many times before filing.

Filing can be easy if you're a native English speaker, but many immigrants find the form intimidating even if they are fluent in English. They hire lawyers, or notarios, piling on additional costs. And finally, the citizenship exam requires studying and memorizing facts that many American-born citizens don't know (Quick, can you answer these: How many years do we elect U.S. Senators for? How many amendments does the constitution have?).

Once you've jumped through the financial, psychological, and practical hoops, you are on your way to becoming a citizen, a process that includes what can be a glorious and moving ceremony in which you renounce your allegiance to any other country and pledge your allegiance to the United States of America. As of last year, thanks to new regulations passed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, voter registration is now available at all citizenship ceremonies as well.

And then the hard (or harder) part. Learning about the American democratic system is no piece of cake. For one, candidates tend not to focus on these new voters, who are considered hard and expensive to reach. Political parties also spend most of their time cultivating primary voters, who have repeatedly shown their propensity to show up at the polls. For another, immigrants are often unfamiliar with, and intimidated by, the process of participation, especially for those from countries with authoritarian or corrupt governments that explicitly discourage or deny their citizens the right to vote.

None of these are excuses, but they are in large part, statements of fact. The process is complicated, the fees are high, the barriers to participation many. Still, I am sure that any of us who have been through the process would say it's worth it. On Citizenship Day, taking a moment to recognize that each year almost 1 million Americans jump over those hurdles to make the United States their home is a fact worth celebrating.