Dear Mr. President,
This past week, I was at a naturalization ceremony at the Eastern District Court in Brooklyn, N.Y., that featured about 100 or so immigrants taking the United States Oath of Allegiance.
Of course, the many immigrants gathered there seemed truly excited to become U.S. citizens, but what struck me as odd was that several could not speak, read or even understand basic English. These were people who had to have been living in the country for at least three-plus years yet they needed a translator to explain the five or so simple questions on the form or to answer the questions posed by the U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization officer present.
I was puzzled. Somehow, I thought that becoming a citizen of the United States had a strong English language requirement. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website, candidates must be able to pass an English test with three components: reading, writing and speaking at a naturalization eligibility interview.
The “ability to speak English will be determined by a USCIS officer during your eligibility interview on Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. For the reading portion, you must read one out of three sentences correctly. For the writing test, you must write one out of three sentences correctly,” the USCIS site states.
Yet here were several immigrants from China, Poland, Bangladesh and Latin America who could not understand the simple form or the English instructions given to them by the USCIS officer present. She had to repeat it in Spanish and later ask other immigrants present to help her translate to Mandarin, Bengali or Polish.
The question I had as I sat there, dumbfounded, was if these immigrants in the group could not understand English, then how would they possibly understand the seriousness of the oath they were about to take that would declare them citizens or the pledge after? You know, the one that says: “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.”
And the pledge after: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
It was further mind-blowing to me that the USCIS officer present told the group they should repeat the oath even if they did not understand it.
Really? Naturalization must be taken seriously, and those taking the oath should read and speak English (the unofficial language of the United States) fluently, understand what they are saying and really appreciate it. Anything less is a complete disrespect to the United States, its government and the Constitution, because nowhere else in the world can you become a citizen of a country and not speak, read or understand the language.
As I saw several immigrants mumbling through the oath and then afterward not even bothering to put their hand over their heart for the pledge, I wondered again about what the arguments for immigration reform are and whether there should really be disagreement over a path to legalization versus naturalization. I say again, let’s get the 11 million working and travel documents, and worry less about making naturalization such a big part of the reform equation.
The writer is CMO of Hard Beat Communications, which owns the brands News Americas Now, CaribPR Wire and Invest Caribbean Now.