Weekly Column of Senator Lamar Alexander - "Strengthening American Citizenship"

Posted on October 12, 2005

Over the coming weeks, the Senate 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. Second, we need to create a legal status for foreign workers and students who come here. Several senators have introduced legislation with these goals in mind, and 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. Just recently 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 is why I recently introduced the Strengthening American Citizenship Act with Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The Strengthening American Citizenship Act helps and encourages 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 grants to organizations to offer 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, and; Asking the Department of Homeland Security to carry out a strategy to highlight the ceremonies where immigrants become American citizens. This bill is about fulfilling the promise of our national motto: 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, 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. Recently I was privileged to witness as 99 immigrants from 46 different countries became Americans during a special ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial. I have attended naturalization ceremonies in Nashville and across my state in the past. I watched as those 99 new Americans swore an Oath of Allegiance to this country. It’s a powerful oath, during which 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 share a part of Washington’s oath with 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. The greatest accomplishment of the United States of America is not that we are diverse. It is that we have molded that diversity into one nation based upon a set of common principles, language and traditions. A few years ago I attended the Italian-American dinner here in Washington, D.C. There were cheers for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, actor Sylvester Stallone, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. They were all there. But what struck me most about the evening was not just the pride in Italian heritage. It was the spontaneous pride in America. You felt it in the singing of our national anthem, in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and in the speeches. They were proud of where their ancestors had come from. They were even prouder of being Americans. I want to make sure legal immigrants who are prospective American citizens feel the same way: that they are proud of their heritage and where they come from but are prouder now to be American. To do that, I believe new citizens must learn our common language, history and way of government. Comprehensive immigration reform must include efforts to help new Americans become part of our national family.