Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks of Sen. Alexander - Strengthening American Citizenship Act introduction

Posted on October 4, 2005

Mr. President, over the coming weeks, this body will engage in a debate on comprehensive immigration reform. I believe real immigration reform must encompass three important steps. First, we must secure our borders. Senators Cornyn and Kyl, McCain and Kennedy, have introduced differing legislation with that goal in mind. Second, we need to create a legal status for foreign workers and students who come here. Cornyn-Kyl and McCain-Kennedy also address the question of workers. Later this month, I intend to introduce legislation to ensure that our immigration system welcomes foreign students to study at our universities. The third step is indispensable to immigration reform: to help prospective citizens become American. That is why today I am introducing the Strengthening American Citizenship Act. I am pleased to be joined by Senator Cornyn in this effort. The Strengthening American Citizenship Act helps legal immigrants who are prospective American citizens to learn our common language, history, and way of government by: Providing $500 grants for English courses, Allowing prospective citizens who become fluent in English to apply for citizenship one year early, Providing for grants to organizations to provide courses in American history and civics, Authorizing the creation of a new foundation to assist in these efforts, Codifying the Oath of Allegiance to which new citizens swear when they are naturalized, Asking the Department of Homeland Security to carry out a strategy to highlight the moving ceremonies where immigrants become American citizens, and Establishing an award to recognize the contributions of new citizens to our great nation. This bill, Mr. President, is about fulfilling the promise of our national motto that’s written right here on the Senate wall: E Pluribus Unum, from many, one. As a nation of immigrants, that motto is very important to us. For while our unique history makes us a diverse nation, we are still one American nation. How do we do that? How do we, as Americans, take all the magnificent diversity that is the United States and mold it into a single nation? We can be one nation because we are united by principles expressed in our founding documents, such as liberty and democracy and the rule of law, not by our multiple ancestries. We are united by our common language, English, and our history of constantly struggling to reach the high ideals that we have set for ourselves as a nation. Part of that American history is welcoming new immigrants to join our nation. We are unique in the world in our attitude toward welcoming others. America is different because, under our constitution, becoming an American can have nothing to do with ancestry. That is because America is an idea, not a race. An American can technically become a citizen of Japan (in rare cases), but would never be considered “Japanese.” But if a Japanese person wants to become a citizen of the United States, he or she must become an American. Mr. President, recently I was privileged to witness as 99 immigrants from 46 different countries became Americans. I have attended naturalization ceremonies in Nashville and across my state in the past. It’s a moving experience that I recommend to all my colleagues. The naturalization ceremony a few weeks ago was a special one held at the Jefferson Memorial. The same ceremonies are held in courthouses across the country. I watched as those 99 new Americans swore an Oath of Allegiance to this country. It’s a powerful oath, where they renounce allegiance to their former country, and swear allegiance to ours and to the Constitution. It’s the Oath we will finally enshrine in law in this bill. That Oath is a part of our history. It dates back to the founding of our nation, almost 230 years ago. On May 12, 1778, as brave Americans were fighting for our freedom, George Washington and his general officers signed a very similar oath as they were camped at Valley Forge. Let me read a part of Washington’s oath to you: “I, George Washington, Commander in chief of the Armies of the United States of America, do acknowledge the UNITED STATES of AMERICA, to be Free, Independent and Sovereign States, and declare that the people thereof owe no allegiance or obedience to George the Third, King of Great-Britain; and I renounce, refuse and abjure any allegiance or obedience to him; and I do swear that I will to the utmost of my power, support, maintain and defend the said United States . . .” That’s how George Washington and his officers swore allegiance to our country. And it set the standard for American citizens from that time forward. Every American should learn about that standard. Since I was elected to this body in 2002, I’ve been working to ensure that American children learn American history and civics. With the help of the Democratic Leader, and many other Senators, we passed a bill in December of 2003 to establish Presidential Academies for Teachers and Congressional Academies for Students of American History and Civics – summer residential academies to help teachers and outstanding students learn more about these important subjects so they pass it on to their students and classmates. I hope this year to pass a bill with Senator Kennedy to provide for improved testing of American history so that we can determine where history is being taught well – and where it is being taught poorly – so that improvements can be made. We also know that when testing is focused on a specific subject, states and school districts are more likely to step up to the challenge and improve performance. So we’re beginning to make progress in reaching out to our children so they understand what this country is all about. But there is another group of Americans we must also reach: new Americans. Just last week there was a report in Florida of a 27-year-old Guatemalan man who posed as an 18-year-old so that he could attend public high school and learn English there. So we know that immigrants are eager to learn. That’s why I, with Senator Cornyn, am introducing this bill to help legal immigrants who are prospective American citizens to learn our common language, history, and way of government. The Strengthening American Citizenship Act will: 1. Help Prospective Citizens Learn English · Provides education grants up to $500 for English courses to immigrants who declare intent to become an American citizen. They might use these grants to take a class from a local non-profit organization or a community college. · Allows citizenship applicants who speak fluent English to meet the residency requirement after four years of living in the United States rather than five. 2. Help Prospective Citizens Learn More about the American Way of Life · Establishes 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. · Provides for grants to organizations to provide classes in American history and civics. While new citizens are required to demonstrate a knowledge of American history and government in a test, helping them access a history or civics class will allow many to gain a richer understanding of our country – and, by doing so, to feel more at home here in the United States. 3. Codify the Oath of Allegiance · The Oath today is written only in federal regulations, but not in law. This gives it the same standing as the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. 4. Celebrate New Citizens · Instructs the Secretary of Homeland Security to develop and implement a strategy to raise public awareness of naturalization ceremonies. These ceremonies embody what it means to become an American – every U.S. citizen, not just those from foreign countries, ought to see one. It’s my hope that more of these ceremonies will be held in prominent locations and perhaps even televised on C-SPAN. · Establishes an award for citizens who have been naturalized within the last ten years and have made an outstanding contribution to the American nation. The bill gives the President this responsibility so that we can recognize how new Americans play a critical role in the progress of our country. Mr. President, we are a nation of immigrants. Almost all of us can trace our ancestry to some part of the globe quite far from here. Over the coming weeks, this body will debate how to reform our immigration system. I believe comprehensive reform must include three things: 1. Securing our borders 2. Creating a legal status for foreign workers and students 3. Helping prospective citizens become Americans. The Strengthening American Citizenship Act fulfills that third objective. Comprehensive immigration reform must include efforts to help new Americans become a part of our national family.