Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) Strengthening American Citizenship Act

Posted on May 15, 2007

May 15, 2007 Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, Senators from both parties are working very hard these days to put together an immigration bill. The majority leader is working hard to create an environment in which that can happen. I appreciate his doing that. It is not easy to do. But it is absolutely essential that we have a comprehensive immigration bill. This is not something Members of the Congress can blame on anybody else. It is not the Governors' job, it is not the mayors' job, it is not the county commissioners' job, it is not the Sheriff's job, it is our job to decide what our immigration policy should be. It is our job to secure the border. It is our job to make certain that those who come here are legally here. It is also our job to make sure that those who come here legally have an opportunity to become Americans, a chance to become part of our country. We have a motto above our wall that says, "One from many." It doesn't say "Many from one." We are very proud of our magnificent diversity in this country. People come here from virtually every country in the world. Anyone who has gone to the regular ceremonies where I think last year 650,000 new citizens stood in courthouses all across America, raised their right hands and swore their allegiance to this country -- nothing is more moving than that. But as much as we prize that diversity, what we prize even more is our ability to turn all that diversity into one country. Unity is harder than diversity. There are a lot of diverse countries in the world, and they are ripped apart by their differences. We have been fortunate. As other countries struggle with the idea of becoming French, becoming German, becoming Japanese -- it is hard to do. But in this country, if you be come a citizen, you have to become an American. How do you do a that? You don't do it by your race. In fact, our Constitution says that cannot be used. You don't do it by any other form of ancestry. It doesn't matter where your grandparents came from. What does matter is that you subscribe to a few principles and that you learn a common language. Those are the most basic elements of the unity, this fragile and important unity that makes us the United States of America instead of just another United Nations. In anticipation of the immigration debate next week, I introduce today, along with Senators Cochran and Cornyn, what we call the Strengthening American Citizenship Act. It is an essential part of any immigration bill because it addresses what happens after one lawfully becomes a resident of this country and begins to think about lawfully becoming a citizen. This legislation will help legal immigrants who are prospective American citizens learn our common language and learn about our ways of government. I introduced this legislation last year, in the 109th Congress, or the last Congress when we considered an immigration bill. It had several cosponsors and it passed this body 91 to 1. It was an amendment to the Senate immigration bill, in April of 2006. I hope the Senate will agree again to make it a part of the bill. It might not make the most headlines, but it will make as much lasting difference in immigration legislation as possible. Here, in brief, is what the legislation would do. First, it would help prospective citizens learn English and it would do that in two ways. It would provide education grants of up to $500 for English courses for immigrants who declare their intent to become American citizens. They might use these grants of $500, for example, to go to any accredited agency such as "Fuentes," in Los Angeles, a place I happen to know about, which can do, for that amount of money, an excellent job of helping, in that case mostly Spanish-speaking citizens, learn also to speak English. So it is a $500 voucher, in effect, to help any lawful person learn English. Second, it will change the citizenship rules to allow those who learn to speak English fluently to reduce from 5 to 4 years the amount of time they have to wait to become a citizen. These are two ways we are trying to help people learn English and by doing that value our common language. There are other ways to do that. Senator Kennedy and I have talked about the fact that there are lines of people in Boston, his State, and Nashville, in my State, of adults who want to learn English, but there is no room for them in the adult education programs we fund. Perhaps when we pass the Workforce Investment Act, or other appropriations bills, we can find other ways to help people who want to learn English, learn English. But this legislation focuses specifically on prospective citizens who want to learn English by giving them a grant to help them do it and by giving them an incentive to learn the language fluently. They can become a citizen then in 4 years instead of 5. Also, it helps prospective citizens learn more about the American way of life. Albert Shanker, the late President of the American Federation of Teachers, said the common school was created in America, the public school, to help largely immigrant children learn reading and writing and arithmetic and what it means to be an American, with the hope they would go home and teach their parents. The last time we had such a large percentage of foreign-born people in our country was in about 1900, the turn of that century. Organizations all over America got busy helping new arrivals learn about our country, learn about our Declaration of Independence, learn about our Constitution and the ideas that were part of it because they knew that, since you do not become a citizen based upon your race or your ancestry and you do it upon the idea of America, that someone needed to help these people learn about the idea of America. Many were very eager to do that. This would establish a foundation to support the activities of the Office of Citizenship within the Department of Homeland Security so that organizations that want to support and cooperate in efforts to reach out to prospective citizens can do so. It would provide grants to organizations to provide classes in American history and civics. We are talking about a lot of prospective citizens -- 650,000 or so last year. After this immigration bill it may be more, because if you become a citizen, you are going to have to be legally here. So we want to make sure we have plenty of help for these who want to do that. Third, codify the oath of allegiance. One of the most remarkable oaths, I suppose, in the American language, is the oath of allegiance that the 650,000 new citizens take when they become Americans. It is an oath that goes all the way back to George Washington's time and Valley Forge. It was essentially the oath that Washington and his officers took at the beginning of the American revolution. It says that I, George Washington, or I, the new citizen, declare that we owe no allegiance or obedience -- in that case, to King George; ... and that we renounce, refuse and abjure any allegiance or obedience to him and do swear that I will, to the utmost of my power, support, maintain and defend the said United States. Essentially, that same oath of allegiance is the oath new citizens take. This elevates that oath of allegiance from a bureaucratic rule to a part of the law and gives it the same dignity that the Pledge of Allegiance has and the national anthem has. Finally, this legislation would celebrate new citizens by focusing on these hundreds of ceremonies that we have, in which people from all over the world wear their best clothes, prove that they have good character, that they have waited 5 years, that they have learned English, that they have passed a test about citizenship, and they are ready to say: As proud as I am of where I came from, I now pledge my allegiance to the United States of America. We want to celebrate those events. This instructs the Secretary of Homeland Security to develop and implement a strategy to make those naturalization ceremonies more important in the fabric of our everyday life, and establish an award for citizens who have been naturalized in the last 10 years who have made an outstanding contribution to the American Nation. We all know in our own experiences that new Americans are sometimes the best Americans. They make the largest contribution. They have the best understanding of our country. We want to celebrate what they have done. This is legislation the Senate adopted before. Senator Cochran, Senator Cornyn, and I are introducing it to make sure we adopt it again when immigration comes up. I also wish to mention that I intend on looking at a comprehensive effort toward the same goal, which I like to call the American citizenship agenda; learning English and what it means to becoming an American. I have identified several areas, and I may introduce amendments in many of these areas to the immigration bill. These were not introduced the last time, but they would include clarifying the mission of the Office of Citizenship within the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, establishing State citizenship advisory boards in a number of States, coordinating efforts toward helping immigrants learning English, American history, and civics. It would create an employer tax credit for businesses that help their employees learn English. As I mentioned earlier, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were a great many businesses hiring new Americans who spent their money, their time, and their effort to make sure those new employees understood what it meant to become Americans. One way to meet this need of a large percentage of foreign-born people in our country is to provide tax incentives to businesses that help their employees learn English. Another proposal is to require a demonstration of English language proficiency when an individual renews his or her green card; establishing a Presidential award for companies that go above and beyond in bringing their employees together as Americans; finally, asking for a Government Accountability Office study to identify the need of lawful permanent residents not speaking English and the associated costs; in other words, how many people living in our country do not speak English and what would be the cost and the most effective programs of helping them learn English. That is my purpose today, to introduce the Strengthening American Citizenship Act, legislation that passed when we considered the immigration bill in 2006, and which Senators Cochran and Cornyn and I hope will be a part of this legislation; then to discuss what I call the Strengthening American Citizenship Agenda, which will be looking for a variety of other ways to help make sure we not only celebrate our diversity but we find ways to celebrate our unity. We can look across the ocean at Europe and see the struggle in Turkey right now for that Nation's identity. We can see the difficulty France and Germany are having as Muslim workers have a hard time integrating into their country. We do not want the United States of America to become a country where we have enclaves of people who have no loyalty to the idea of this Nation. We want to create an environment where everyone has an opportunity to think about loyalty to this country, where almost all have a chance to think about becoming a citizen one day, and where every single person who lives here has an opportunity to learn to speak our common language, not just for their benefit but so we do not become a tower of Babel or a United Nations, that we become a United States of America, as our Founders envisioned.