The naturalization ceremony is now a part of the July 4th ritual, right up there with picnics, parades, and fireworks. The script is faithfully recounted in newspapers across the country. Dignified surroundings (courtrooms, historic sites, ballparks) with presiding local luminaries (judges, office holders, public intellectuals), celebratory family members in tow. US flag-waving applicants from [fill-in-the-blank] number of countries. Short summaries of patriotic speeches, interviews with newly-minted citizens overjoyed by their new status. Perfect assignment for a cub reporter working the holiday weekend, a piece that practically writes itself.
This year was no exception, with the accelerant of President Obama’s presiding over a naturalization ceremony for active-duty military personnel (who, by the way, can pretty much become instant citizens — no residency requirement applies).
I don’t want to detract from the accomplishment that naturalization can represent (especially for those with less education, who are forced to pass tests on civics, history, and facility in the English language to attain full equality in their place of habitual residence, as well as for those with refugee status). The sentiments voiced are no doubt genuine, and for some naturalization remains a transformative experience.
But the picture these reports paint distorts the reality of naturalization today in at least these three ways:
1. Naturalization ceremonies are always so dignified. Hardly. More than half of all applicants are sworn in ceremonies at local Department of Homeland Security offices. These can be drab affairs, the proceedings supervised by lower-level USCIS bureaucrats following a strict operating-manual protocol. Think one-step up from the DMV. In some cities, deportation proceedings are being held across the hallway. (Not that court-presided ceremonies are always so dignified. See page 8 of this 2008 DHS ombudsman report for some less-than-inspiring examples; note also the use of “oathed” as a transitive verb.)
2. Applicants are mostly naturalizing for sentimental reasons. Naturalization is not about being proud to be an American. A Pew Research poll found that only 6 percent of naturalization applicants are motivated by “their sense of identity as an American or their love of the U.S.” Eighteen percent cite civil and legal rights as the primary reason for naturalization (that more closely aligns with a conventional trope that naturalization is about getting the vote). Sixteen percent are interested in the “benefits and opportunities” of citizenship, including the value of travelling on a US passport, being able to apply for certain public sector jobs, and acquiring eligibility for public benefits. In other words, many who naturalize are (quite rationally) doing it for instrumental reasons.
3. Naturalization applicants are transferring their allegiance to the United States. The vast majority of naturalizing citizens are also keeping their citizenship of origin. A clear majority of countries allow dual citizenship — according to one survey, 19 out of the top 20 source states for immigrants to the US allow naturalizing citizens to keep their citizenship. Others that don’t recognize the status fail to police against it (China for example). Only a few take dual citizenship bans seriously — Japan is probably the best example. When it comes to the July 4th accounts, it’s hard to know whether this is an implicit distortion or whether it’s just not reported on. My guess is that most native-born Americans would be surprised to discover that dual citizenship is the new normal among naturalized Americans.
So why the continuing convention of July 4th naturalization accounts? USCIS keeps up the pace, this year with more than 100 ceremonies across the country in the week leading up to and including the 4th. From a PR perspective, this is money well spent. From the reporters’ perspective, why rain on the parade? They probably understand this isn’t a battle to pick with their putatively patriotic readership (an assumption that may be thinning on a generational basis, according to this NYT report). For others, finally, it may be politically risky business to challenge naturalization tropes. For proponents of immigration reform, highlighting a less-than-pure path to citizenship is hardly going to help move the ball forward. Political and other elites, even on the progressive side, are still nationalists. So no one has much of an interest to leave the script, even if it no longer jives with circumstances on the ground.