The Promise of America
By Jean Godden
July is the most American month. It's a month when hundreds who came to this country from elsewhere raise a hand and swear solemnly to support and defend the U. S. Constitution and the nation's laws against all its enemies, foreign and domestic. In return, foreign born immigrants and refugees officially become naturalized U. S. citizens.
No matter how often I have witnessed citizenship ceremonies, sometimes in person, sometimes in news clips, I always get a rock-sized lump in my throat and wipe away an unbidden tear. It touches the heart that so many have struggled, often enduring multiple hardships, to attain the American dream.
When I have been present, usually on Independence Day, July Fourth, at mass swearing-in ceremonies at the Seattle Center's Fisher Pavilion, it is their eyes that touch my heart. Behind the eyes of those taking the oath are stories that can only be imagined. Their stories are a sharp contrast to those of us fortunate enough to have been born into the American dream.
However, for most of the native born, our American birthright does not stretch back that many years. If I am typical for my generation (a mature one), I can count three of my four grandparents who took the oath of citizenship at naturalization ceremonies.
My Swedish grandmother came with relatives on an over-crowded sailing ship from a country then gripped in famine; my German grandparents fled abuse and poverty to homestead on newly irrigated farmlands in Northern Wyoming. All had to wait five or more years, learn English, study citizenship manuals and pass an exam tough enough to stump the native-born, before being granted the blessings of freedom.
As I look back on that first generation, I have immense admiration for what each of them accomplished. In addition to raising families (seven children for my German grandparents), they each carved out an important place in their communities. My grandmother cooked holiday and Sunday dinners and prepared wedding feasts at the Swedish Methodist church; my German grandfather built the town's first church from logs skidded down from the mountains, wrote countless letters to the local paper and then ran for Congress as a rare Wyoming Democrat. (No surprise. He lost "by a few votes.")
What does it mean to be an American? What is the American dream? That's a question that naturalized citizens have asked and then answered for themselves. For them it likely means freedom, safety, security and equality.
Waves of foreign-born striving to earn citizenship offer hope for the continuation of the American dream. But naturalization is endangered in this Age of Donald Trump. When one considers videos of the president's vicious rhetoric targeting immigrants and refugees, whom he has accused of "invading" the United States, you have to realize how wonderfully aspirational is the desire of so many to attain citizenship. There is both joy and sadness in the push to belong in a country led by a man who approves "zero tolerance policies" that separate families and imprison children, and who wants to build a wall.
I simply must believe that the majority of Americans and would-be Americans do not advocate for the cruel Trumpian policies of slamming our doors on the Statue of Liberty's fabled huddled masses. There is much inspiration in the fact that there are still those who come from away and raise a hand and swear to defend the U. S. Constitution and our nation's laws.
We must remember that immigration and naturalization have been an inseparable part of our nation since its founding and must remain so if we are to preserve American values. In doing so, we will be following in the footsteps of our founding fathers who rebelled against the offenses of King George III; one of the specific offenses cited in our Declaration of Independence was "obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners."
July is rightfully the most American of months, a time to recall the Declaration of Independence's beliefs -- the inalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness -- and a time to celebrate and welcome those who take the oath of citizenship.