Some moments in life seem suspended in time, transformative. The best of those bring meaning not only to the person directly experiencing them, but to anyone lucky enough to share the joy.
Tuesday held such a moment. If you caught our Coeur Voice feature a few months ago, you know about local resident Abdul Samad — one of those human beings as beautiful inside as he is on the surface. On Sept. 17 I was privileged along with his friends and loved ones to witness 98 people from 40 countries (and all age groups) become American citizens.
Yes, there were tears. And lots of smiles, but not just for them. It was impossible not to be reminded of all we have to appreciate, what it means, and how lucky we are to be U.S. citizens.
The date was no accident. This is Constitution week, and Sept. 17 is Citizenship Day, a tradition since 1940 on the date the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787.
The atmosphere was exciting, supportive, and positive. Inspirational messages and little American flags in nearly every hand. Naturalization is the end of a long road, and the beginning of another. These new Americans not only waited through years of paperwork, extensive background checks, studying (English and civics) once they applied, but most waited years just to come to this country. There were so many poignant and fascinating stories in the room.
It was an emotional time. Joyful, yet quite serious. Everyone was dressed well (including Sons and Daughters of the Revolution in period costume), respectful of the occasion’s solemnity.
It was a large meeting center in Spokane Valley, but technically, we were in court. A smiling federal Judge Thomas O. Rice opened the proceeding, official words were said. We stood for the color guard. We all recited the pledge, right hand over heart, left hand holding a miniature flag.
We watched the candidates take the oath.
A tradition dating back to the 18th century, the U.S. Oath of Allegiance is a sworn declaration that every citizenship applicant must recite. Those of us born here never had to, so hearing it was almost humbling:
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
Before the ceremony stage, naturalization candidates must also memorize answers to 100 civics questions, some of which an embarrassing number of us native citizens couldn’t answer.
For example, most of us know general principles of American Democracy, such as the Bill of Rights (can you name all 10?), the number of amendments (27), and the three branches of government. Most of us could define freedom of religion, although many wouldn’t include the second part of that answer: The freedom to have no religion at all.
Fewer know how many U.S. Senators there are (100), Representatives (435), or the length of their terms (six and two, respectively). Can the average American name their delegation? No, but a newly naturalized citizen can.
Can you name the current Speaker of the House? The Chief Justice? Name the original 13 colonies. What territory did the U.S. buy from France, and when? Who authored the Federalist Papers and what are they?
A pathetic 24 percent of eligible Americans are registered to vote. Nearly all of Tuesday’s newly naturalized citizens registered immediately after the ceremony, eager to exercise their new privileges and responsibilities.
Maybe the rest of us could use a civics lesson, and a reminder of those precious rights we take for granted.
“Nearly all Americans have ancestors who braved the oceans — liberty-loving risk takers in search of an ideal … Immigration is not just a link to America’s past; it’s also a bridge to America’s future.” — George H.W. Bush
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.