Note: This piece originally ran in New America Media, available here.
This week we celebrate Constitution Week, a time to reflect on the uniquely American idea that citizenship in this country is a matter of commitment and conscience.
Constitution Week focuses largely on September 17, "Constitution Day and Citizenship Day" -- a recognition of naturalized American citizens and an opportunity for them to express their pride in their citizenship. We also celebrate the Constitution and the rights and responsibilities it bestows in all of us.
At U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Constitution Week is an opportunity to celebrate the way in which the Constitution set the foundation for welcoming new Americans - those who have chosen to subscribe to our civic ideals of "liberty and justice for all" and have committed themselves to join "we the people" in our pursuit of "a more perfect union."
Our celebration includes administering special naturalization ceremonies across the nation, highlighting the connection between the Constitution and the honor, privilege, and responsibility of becoming a U.S. citizen through naturalization.
These ceremonies have special meaning to me. My parents and grandparents were refugees from Cuba. And as a young boy, I watched as my parents studied for, and took, their citizenship test. Before they took the Oath of Allegiance, I did not fully appreciate what citizenship truly meant. But seeing how proud they were to naturalize made it clear to me, even then, that they were fulfilling a life-long dream - for them and for me.
As a public servant for most of my professional career, I have often taken oaths to support and defend the Constitution. But as Director of USCIS, one of my highest privileges is to administer the Oath of Allegiance - the same oath my parents took -- at a naturalization ceremony and welcoming new citizens to the promise and hope of America.
Today, the United States has almost 9 million lawful residents who are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. I encourage each of them to step forward and complete their journey in becoming an American citizen. And I pledge that at each step of the way, USCIS will be there to help, expanding our ability to reach as many audiences and communities as possible.
We have already partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency to expand services to agricultural and rural communities. This week, naturalization applicants can start using credit cards to pay fees. Also this week, we will launch the next phase of our Citizenship Public Education and Awareness Campaign, with new online test preparation tools. We are also announcing new award recipients under our Citizenship and Integration Grant Program to help build community capacity to prepare immigrants for citizenship.
Each new American citizen brings a unique set of skills and experiences which they can use to improve our communities and our nation. And each of them can help renew our shared hope that unlimited possibilities are available to everyone who embraces the opportunities that this country offers under its Constitution.
On that first Constitution Day in 1787, Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention and was asked what kind of government had been created. "A Republic," Franklin replied, "if you can keep it."
That is the challenge on this Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. But I am fully confident that "we the people," if we are faithful to ourselves and to each other, will "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" that we ordained and established by our Constitution.
León Rodríguez is Director of the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.