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On Coming to the United States: Reaching for that American Identity


July, 26, 2006. In a large, federal courtroom, people from countries such as China, the Philippines, Jordan, and Israel all sit together, waiting for a single, visually insignificant sheet of paper. For some, the wait has been an arduous ten years if not more, a time of struggle, change and uncertainty. Some fled their home countries, hoping to find protection and safety from oppression. Others came in search of opportunity, hoping to find work to build a sustainable future. Despite their different backgrounds and experiences, however, they all have one thing in common this day—they are awaiting a certificate of naturalization. They have come together with the dream of becoming American.  

What does it mean, however, to become an American? Does the process of becoming American end with the lengthy, legal process of naturalization, or is naturalization merely one, long step towards full integration? Can these naturalized immigrants even attain the American identity within their lifetime and what is perceived as an American identity?   

Before these aspiring citizens could even go through the process of becoming American, they had to meet many requirements to even be considered.  One of the most important requirements for citizenship eligibility is time spent in the United States.  For most, they needed to have been a ‘lawful permanent resident’ (LPR) for at least five years. This time, however, is decreased to three years for those who are married to and live with another U.S. citizen. They also needed to have had continuous residence in the United States as well. So, in order to retain their LPR status, they could not leave the United States for more than six months. Furthermore, they had to prove that they spent at least half of the time as an LPR within the United States.  

In addition to time spent, the applicants needed to have a basic understanding of the English language as well as knowledge of U.S. history and government. Age and disability, however, is used to become exempt from some or all of these requirements.  For example, someone over the age of 50 living in the United States as an LPR for at least 20 years can forgo the English exam.  Moreover, those over the age of 65 can take a simpler version of the civics exam in the language of their choice. Arguably, if this knowledge is a requirement to become a U.S. citizen, most U.S born citizens would have a difficult time passing this exam.  Nevertheless, those who are able to pass the exam thus become qualified to become a U.S. citizen.  

Finally, the applicants must be of ‘good moral character’ and willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. In contrast with most of the other requirements which are relatively straightforward and easy to understand, the concept of good moral character is much more ambiguous. According to Alan Kaplan of The New York Immigration Coalition, one of the ways in which this concept is measured is through a person’s criminal record. Those who have committed crimes, especially violent crimes, are automatically ineligible for U.S. citizenship. Kaplan, however, expressed concern that government officials have too much power when assessing one’s moral character: “This power of interpretation can be used in a negative way by being selective of prospective citizens.” 

For example, he cites groups such as Germans, Jews and Chinese who were blocked in the past from attaining citizenship because of this selective process. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 asserts: “Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof.” Section fourteen of the Act further states: “That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed.” Since the term moral character is not specifically defined in the current citizenship requirements, government officials, as seen in this Act, have the opportunity to measure this concept at their own discretion.  


Those waiting in the courtroom, however, were apparently deemed people of “good moral character.” They met the eligibility requirements. As a result, they were able to undertake the lengthy process of becoming American, starting with the filling out an application, followed by the literacy exams for which many of them had to wait a year before they were enabled to perform this. Many also had to wait up to a year or more after the application had been sent in to receive an appointment for taking those exams. After all the waiting and scrutiny by the government, they now stand together anxiously on this day relieved, having passed all of these obstacles. Only one step remains before they will be able to call themselves U.S. citizens—they must recite before the judge the Oath of Allegiance and Pledge of Allegiance.  

As these prospective citizens begin to recite these words, the courtroom is filled with a new, unified sound of ‘soon-to-be-Americans’ who are declaring that they are willing to support and defend the United States and the values and ideals inscribed within the constitution. These vows mark the final step in the process to becoming a U.S. citizen.  With this promise, they are granted the same legal benefits and opportunities that all U.S. citizens share. One by one, their long wait to become U.S. citizens has ended.  Legally, they have finally become Americans.   


But what does it mean now to be an American? How does it feel to walk out of that courtroom with a single sheet of white paper that reads from this day forth you are now an American citizen? For some it is the idea of belonging. “It feels like finally being a part of something,” says an immigrant from Israel who has been in the United States for twelve years and proud to share that he has three children. What about leaving behind his Israeli identity? “No problem,” he says. “Most people in Israel have double citizenships. Our two countries are also fighting on the same side”, aiming at the current tensions between Israel and Lebanon. 

For others, becoming an American has a more practical meaning, it means that, after years of working and paying taxes in this country, they are finally able to reap the benefits of a society they have contributed so much to. A young, Chinese woman and a middle-aged man from Jordan share that they are now able to apply for a U.S. passport, making their travels in and out of the country much easier. 

Another important or even crucial difference in status is that all these new born citizens now share one of the most important civic rights: the right to participate in this democracy by voting.  Political involvement has been a vital factor for the United States since its birth. The system of participatory democracy encourages their citizens to bring in their interests. Even non-citizens can join civic associations, local community boards etc.  The tendency is that Americans by choice (46%) are more likely to vote than native-born Americans (43%). Furthermore, 60% of new voters are immigrants. New citizens, facing for the first time the opportunity to influence policy, eagerly do so. The effect is that civic participation becomes a tool towards more political integration: the more engaged somebody is in his community the more it becomes her/his home.


Is it enough to become a legal citizen, however, to become American? Arguably, going through these lengthy steps is insufficient; more is required of these new citizens in attaining the American identity. One of the important aspects of American identity is imbedded in the Oath and Pledge of Allegiance. When the new citizens recited those words, they vowed to grant their allegiance to the United States and relinquish their old allegiance to their home country. Of course there is always the question how this works with people who have dual citizenship. 

Nevertheless, allegiance to America is extremely important when considering this American identity.  Famous American leaders have spoken frankly about the correlation between the American identity and one’s allegiance. For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race and ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.”  

Theodore Roosevelt declared it more bluntly when he said: 

“In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin…There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag ... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language ... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”  

It is true that one of the standard measurements Americans perform when assessing how much one is an American is by seeing what flag he/she waves. For example, many during the immigration protests earlier this year were labeled ‘Un-American’ for waving a Mexican flag even though many at the protests were naturalized citizens.  

So apparently it is not enough, therefore, to become a naturalized citizen in American society to be viewed as American. Going through this legal process is only one step in the integration in reaching of this ´American identity´. America during World War II already demonstrated that being a naturalized citizen who openly pledges her/his allegiance to the country does not necessarily make her/him part of the American collective identity. Thousands of Japanese naturalized citizens were viewed as a threat to the country even though their allegiance to the United States was just as strong as other White citizens.  Despite this allegiance, they were rounded up and herded into internment camps, isolating them from the rest of the American population.  

In recent times, many Muslims (and people who look like Muslims or have at least a Mediterranean looking) are viewed in a similar way. Naseem Rizui, an asylee from Pakistan and a representative of Council of Peoples Organization (COPO), shared that the organization came into existence during the aftermath of 9/11, in which people in her community suffered increased prejudices and discrimination. One of the organization’s missions is therefore to fight prejudice and discrimination by offering programs that will help people in her community integrate more into American society. One of the concrete ways that the organization helps this integration is by providing free English classes.  

How does Rizui look upon the issue of gaining the American identity? For Rizui, the English language is a critical aspect of American identity. She views learning the language as a crucial step to “bridging the gaps” and “being a part of the fabric of society.” Not learning English creates serious generation and communication gaps which lead to tension and violence within the families and the community. “The children,” Naseem discusses, “who are usually born and raised here do speak sufficient English and often feel truly American. They want to do the same things as everybody. They are out of the control of their parents because their parents don’t speak the language very well, so they aren’t able to communicate with the teachers.” 


These citizens can learn the language and wave the flag, but will they still be seen as American? Through all of the integration attempts, many immigrant groups are left with one thing that they cannot integrate—the color of their skin. Yet, the United States is a country that promotes the image of the melting pot and the motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (out of many, one). It is the ideal concept where people’s various cultural backgrounds come together to contribute to a greater American identity.  

Jagajit Singh, Program Director of COPO, however, asserts: “The American identity is segregated. We do not use the same yardstick when measuring what it means to be an American. Why doesn’t anybody speak of ‘European-Americans’ for instance?”   Manuel García, Jr., who was born in New York, writes: “Being born here is not enough.  I know I was, and still most Americans think I’m a foreigner.” If Garcia, an American by birth, still has his American identity questioned to this day, what chances do these new immigrants who nowadays come mostly from Latin and Asian countries, have in truly attaining the American identity?   

What needs to happen is a psychological revolution. If Americans continue to stereotype the American identity as a white identity, minority groups will continually feel left out of the fabric. The fact that people like Garcia are still considered foreigners damages the ideal American identity of “E pluribus Unum.” Anyone born within the fabric of society should be embraced as a fabric of society.  Americans must actively work against their ingrained stereotypes so that future generations can mindlessly view their children as much an American as anyone else.   

As A Philippine woman expresses outside the courtroom after the naturalization ceremony, “Being an American allows for a mosaic identity. I am able to combine the good values from my home country with those of America.” American identity here is really taking and enjoying the ‘best of both worlds’. 

Due to the means of mass communication, due to globalization for recent immigrants the praised model of a “melting pot” is not the only likelihood anymore. As Marcelo Suarez-Orozco writes in “Everything you ever wanted to know about assimilation but were afraid to ask”, and as latest publications like the book “Transculturalism” by Claude Grunitzky show, there is the germ of an idea of what the Philippine woman means by a mosaic identity: the consciousness of “being an actor on transnational stages”. “In the global era, the tenets of unilateral assimilation are no longer relevant. There are social, economic, cognitive, and aesthetic advantages to being able to move across cultural spaces.”  Suarez-Orozco calls out.  

As they hold the paper in their hands, the newly naturalized citizens slowly walk out of the large courtroom, appearing as if they are still not positive that the long process has come to an end.  They study the paper like a map.  If they so desire, they will be able to help choose the next leader of the United States by participating in the 2008 elections.  Many will have children who learn English as their first language and grandchildren who will lose the old language altogether. Yet, with naturalization papers in hand, will they now be seen as Americans?  Do they look American to you?





Alan Kaplan, New York Immigration Coalition

Jagajit Singh, Director of Programs, Council of Peoples Organization

Naseem Rizui, Council of Peoples Organization

Five Anonymous Interviewees in the Federal Court, Brooklyn, New York City


Manuel Garcia Jr.

Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, “Everything you ever wanted to know about assimilation but were afraid to ask”

Claude Grunitzky, “Transculturalism”










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