Acceptance Through Citizenship
Most Reverend John S. Cummins, Chairman
In our country's relatively brief history we have been blessed with a constant infusion of new peoples, new cultures, new hopes, new dreams, and new life through the diversity, indeed the universality of the men and women who have come to this country to make it their home.
These newcomers with their different cultures, different foods, different languages and different ways, while too often rejected at first, have all eventually been allowed to make their important contributions to an ever changing, ever new America. Decade by decade these new pieces of America have been laid side by side with the old to form the American mosaic. A mosaic that the "Great Seal of the United States expresses [as] an American ideal that should inspire us in its motto: 'E Pluribus Unum' -- out of many, one. This motto, recognizing national unity out of the widest diversity, reflects the reality that our nation is a nation of immigrants."1
And yet in many ways, we are more than simply a nation of immigrants; we are a nation of immigrants who, through citizenship, seek to fully embrace all that America is and hopes to be. Today, as in decades past for many immigrants, citizenship represents the ultimate in attaining the American dream. Citizenship acknowledges the exceptional value of the immigrants and bestows fuller acceptance into American society. Through naturalization the immigrant is transformed from an "alien" into an American; no longer the stranger, but now an esteemed family member free to assert all the rights and bear all the responsibilities of American citizenship.
The naturalization process is designed to ensure only motivated and eligible immigrants attain citizenship. Immigrants pursuing citizenship must also prove their commitment and dedication to American ideals by renouncing fidelity to their country of birth and swearing allegiance to the United States and the Constitution. While standards are difficult to meet and the process often discouragingly long and arduous, immigrants continue to seek American citizenship in unprecedented numbers.
Reports of inadequate oversight and management, failure to implement quality control measures, and the general problems that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has experienced in administering the naturalization process have received extensive Congressional and media attention. These circumstances have led some to advocate changing the standards for becoming a citizen and have set the stage for serious consideration of restrictive and, we believe, unnecessary legislation. These calls for restricting access to U.S. citizenship are particularly disturbing considering that all data continues to reveal that the overwhelming majority of immigrants and refugees in this country are of good moral character, enrich our communities, are grateful to their adopted homeland, and eager to become full-fledged citizens. Citizenship is the most precious of all benefits that the federal government can bestow on an individual; thus, the naturalization process must be performed with an integrity that ensures that only those truly eligible and meeting all the requisite criteria become naturalized. Any efforts to change the current system must be undertaken in a manner that will do more than further ensure integrity. They must also ensure fairness and efficiency. Any legislation considered in the current climate may well serve only to make the process more difficult for those seeking citizenship, render thousands ineligible for citizenship and add to the already appalling backlog -- a backlog the INS has estimated at more than 1.7 million applications in November 1997.
It is equally important that automatic citizenship for individuals born in the United States, regardless of their alienage or the status of their parents, be preserved in law and in the Constitution. To deny or restrict birthright citizenship would erect a new and artificial barrier between the "accepted" citizens and the "unaccepted" citizens of our nation. This would create an unhealthy and destructive divide within America and add to the number of those who feel excluded from the greater society.
As in the past, the Bishops on the NCCB Migration Committee "call on the United States Congress to recognize and support the important task of nurturing new citizens so that they may begin to play a full role in the future of this nation"2 and ask that INS be permitted to implement fully its new plans and procedures designed to avoid the problems of the past. The current criteria for attaining citizenship are time-tested. The standards that immigrants must meet to become citizens are high, but not so high as to be unattainable. Altering the criteria in a way that would place citizenship out of the reach of more immigrants would be detrimental to us all. Citizenship is not only of value to the immigrant, but to our nation as well. It is the traditional virtue of citizenship that renews American democracy. Therefore, it is incumbent upon our government to support programs that help immigrants to meet the requirements of citizenship and to ensure integrity, efficiency and fairness in the naturalization process that will facilitate that renewal.
The Bishops believe that citizenship plays an important role in affirming the human dignity of those who are able to take advantage of the process. Raising the rate of naturalization across ethnic groups also has an important and beneficial impact on the common good of our society. "By becoming citizens, immigrants reinforce the equities that they have built in this country and become full partners in the course and life of our nation." 3 And thus the marked increase in immigrants seeking citizenship must be viewed in a positive light, because it surely tells us that these newcomers have bound their lives and their futures inextricably to that our nation's.
We must continually remind ourselves that all newcomers aspire to become an integral part of their new homeland. All wish to be truly American, conveying enduring values to our families, our churches, our country. Any attempt to reject or discourage their presence or participation, overtly or subtly, is unacceptable. It would be particularly egregious if we were to close the door of full membership in American society to those born within our borders, or to deserving immigrants and refugees who are dedicated to the American way of life. We must look at the immigrants in our midst, not as strangers, but as new Americans in the making, helping us to forge a new and better America.
1 United States Catholic Conference, "Cultural Pluralism in the United States," April 14, 1980. Paragraph 48.
2 "Human Dignity through Naturalization" Committee on Migration, Most Reverend Theodore E. McCarrick, Chairman, July 1994
3 "Human Dignity through Naturalization" Committee on Migration, Most Reverend Theodore E. McCarrick, Chairman, July 1994