After 25 years of temporary visas and a “green card,” I became an American citizen last week. Passing through the portal from alien to American, I found more than just a day of administration and ceremony. I found unexpected windows onto my country’s political life.
At the courthouse on the day of the ceremony, the security guards were friendly and the staff helpful, though I was disappointed that we could not bring our cameras into the building. “Everything changed after 9/11,” a guard told me. He then directed me down the hall to a function room that served temporarily as a naturalization ceremony room. There was no ornamentation, no grand and imposing Homeland Security seal, no majestic bench or lectern from which the judge could speak to us on behalf of the law. The U.S. District Court Building in Brooklyn was built in 2009, but the room that was more suitable to this solemn occasion was still under construction. Later, in her address to us, the judge apologized for this deficiency. I appreciated that.
The process began with a man from the New York City Commission on Human Rights distributing and explaining voter registration forms. When he came to the section on party affiliation, he mentioned three: Democratic, Republican and Independent, and then mumbled something about there being others, as though he couldn’t remember them all, even though there were two other party names right on the form. Then he took time to point out that New York is “pretty much a one-party city,” so that the dominant party’s primary decides whoever is eventually elected. If any of us wanted a serious role in choosing a successful candidate for office, he told us, it would be wise to register with that party. The message was clearly that unless you want to waste your vote, you should register as a Democrat, though he did not name the party.
Later in the process, he explained how the New York City human rights code is the toughest in the country at any level of government, and even in the world. I wondered if, by that standard, it was perhaps too tough, allowing for frivolous or dishonest complaints. He encouraged us to initiate a process if we “feel” we might have been a victim of discrimination. Litigiousness and legal bullying cannot start too early, I suppose. He seemed a nice man.
After two hours of about 160 people going forward row by row to hand in their green cards and passports and sign their certificates, it finally was time for the judge to enter, and we all stood to receive her. Judge Marilyn Go was joyful and welcoming. She is herself an immigrant from China and the first Asian-American woman to become a federal judge. She gave a stirring speech on America as a land of opportunity, citing her own example, rising as she did from speaking no English and, as she said, “not knowing a single lawyer,” to joining the bar and even becoming a judge in 1993. The theme of American exceptionalism was well-suited to the occasion. Her story, she said, was possible “only in America,” and she encouraged everyone to pursue similar dreams for themselves and their children.
Sadly, her address included some significant inaccuracies. She referred to America as a democracy, which we are not. We are a republic. One may overlook this mistake in most people, but she is a judge. She interprets and applies the law, and so she ought to know the nature of the political system in which that law functions. She told us that the law prevents government from intruding into our private affairs. That was good, but what does it mean? She added that because of our wonderful Constitution, we have the freedoms of speech and religion. She did not mention the right to bear arms or the right to petition our government for the redress of grievances.
One could be forgiven for concluding from these remarks that speech and religion are the extent of our liberties. Judge Go then misquoted the Declaration of Independence, informing us that in America, we believe that “all men are equal, and are endowed with unalienable rights.” Endowed by whom? She left out “by the Creator,” without whom there is no reason to believe that people are fundamentally equal. The judge should either know the words of the Declaration better than she does or stop editing our great founding document according to what she thinks are the sensibilities of her audience.
This is how we receive people into citizenship, or at least the mere 50,000 a year who come through New York City. Though we call them to swear allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands, we tell them they are becoming citizens of a democracy. We ask them on their citizenship test how many Supreme Court justices there are and then encourage them from their first American breath to litigate the slightest offense. We ask them to name the author of the Declaration of Independence but then give them the central teaching of that document in a form that neither the author nor the founding generation would recognize.
But I have no doubt that Homeland Security is doing a far better job in its other areas of responsibility, like securing our borders and keeping bombers off of airplanes.
D.C. Innes is assistant professor of politics at the King’s College in New York City.