Paus in the Sunday Republican about becoming an American Citizen

Tuesday, May 7, 2002 - 12:00

This Op-ed ran in the Sunday Republican on Sunday, May 5, 2002

On March 14, I became a U.S. citizen. Together with 390 others from many different countries I took the pledge of allegiance in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall. It was a crisp, beautiful morning. The atmosphere was solemn but expectant. Some struggled to contain their joy; others were a bit apprehensive, as if doubtful of their newly accorded status until they could actually hold the Certificate of Naturalization in their hands. As I sat there on the ground floor of this impressive building waiting for the ceremonies to begin, my family beaming down from the balconies and the busts of Founding Fathers peering at me somewhat quizzically from the back of the stage, I found myself thinking about citizenship in the United States - what it would mean to me; what it ought to mean to all of us.

In front of me was the famous life-size painting of Daniel Webster, pleading with his Senate colleagues for "liberty and union, now and forever," I felt surrounded, and inspired, by a history of impassioned advocacy and principled dissent. I thought of the arguments against the injustices of British colonialism that Samuel Adams had raised in this very place more than 200 years ago. And my memory played over the stories of other figures of the Revolutionary period, stories that I had learned only recently as preparation for my "citizenship interview." Out of this background, a definition of citizenship began to emerge, to be sure one premised on placing country before self; these men were, after all, devoted patriots. But I was struck also by their devotion not just to country but to ideas, indeed, their willingness to actively criticize and even to revolt against "their country" when Britain ceased to deserve their loyalty.

Then, the judge arrived, and an official of the Immigration and Naturalization Service called the meeting to order. Undoubtedly, each of the nearly 400 people around me had somewhat different reasons for wanting to become a U.S. citizen. But I wondered how many of them noticed, how different were the conceptions of citizenship presented to us during the proceedings, and how far they diverged from the sort of citizenship that Samuel Adams or Daniel Webster might have described had they had been given a place on the program.

The first official message came from the INS. To be in Faneuil Hall that day, each aspiring citizen had to have passed an oral examination with an INS official. One of the questions in the study guide for the interview asks the respondent to name one benefit of being a citizen of the United States. The suggested answer is "to obtain Federal Government jobs, to travel with a U.S. passport, or to petition for close relatives to come to the United States to live."

The second message came from Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler who presided over the ceremony. She impressed upon us the importance of exercising our most fundamental rights and responsibilities as citizens, namely to vote and to accept the call for jury duty.

And the third interpretation came from President George W. Bush. In a letter we found on our chairs, the President called upon us to respect each human being and to be "citizens building communities of service and a nation of character."

Potential economic benefits, participation in elections and the trial process, and responsibility to our fellow human beings and communities are indeed important benefits and obligations of U.S. citizenship. Yet each of these definitions seemed in its way more limited and limiting than the notion of citizenship I had hoped to hear celebrated – a notion embracing each citizen's responsibility to promote liberty and justice for all, to dissent when dissent is called for - an active, critical citizenship worthy of the founders of the Republic.

These reflections were not the only ones I had that morning. I thought also of the twists of fate that had led me to acquire citizenship in a country that had interned my father in an Idaho P.O.W. camp for German soldiers after WW II. Like me, he had had to study the political system of the United States and to pass a test. But in his case, as he left Camp Rupert for home in 1946, his satisfactory performance was his ticket out of the country, not a way to stay in.

My parents' generation had not been raised to scrutinize and question institutions of authority. They had been taught to obey and to follow. My generation of Germans, born in the late 40s and 50s, were not raised to question either. But the reality of the Holocaust and the War prompted many of us to face uncomfortable questions about citizenship and government.

Maybe, on that sunny morning in Faneuil Hall, we did not hear about the importance of a more active citizenship because liberty and justice and the right to dissent are to be taken for granted. But I don't think so. We live in a country where most people know more about the Simpsons than the Constitution and at a time when some regard dissent as the nemesis, rather than the essence, of democracy. We may hope that the tragic events of September 11th have turned Americans from a decades-long preoccupation with personal well-being toward a new public spiritedness. Certainly, in some ways, that appears to be true. But when the Minority Leader of the U.S. Senate can demand angrily to know how one of his colleagues can dare to voice even the mildest criticism of the President's anti-terrorism policies, when global inequality continues to grow and hundreds of millions of people in the world live in desperate poverty, all seemingly beyond the consciousness of most Americans, then there is still much work to be done to redefine, redirect, and revitalize our ideas of citizenship, not just at home, but in an interdependent world.

Eva Paus is a Professor of Economics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA.