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Do You Know What It Means to Be an American?

Dems and Republicans are working together on immigration reform. What's next? Gun safety?

Living in Mo’town, you might have brushed off the recent immigration reform news saying, “That has nothing to do with me.” We do live a rather sheltered existence here in leafy suburbia, but if you eat Jersey tomatoes, cranberries or blueberries, seasonal workers probably harvested them. If you employ a lawn service, you are probably helping the economy of Guatemala or Mexico. Going out to dinner? Depending on where you go, there’s a good chance that many in the kitchen crew, dishwashers and busboys are here illegally.

Immigration reform affects all of us. Just ask Mitt Romney. At the Florida Republican Convention, Romney said he would make life so miserable for undocumented immigrants they would “self-deport.” Instead, and largely because of his stringent views on immigration, his presidential campaign self-destructed.

Other Republicans were watching and learning from the 2012 election results, which saw only 27 percent of the Latino votes going to Romney. Suddenly, Republicans with a voice are signaling they’re ready for reform. Good thing, too, because we are no longer living in a Snow White world, guys. Glad you’ve woken up to smell the Bustelo!

I watched my mother become a U.S. citizen in the late '80s, in a wood-paneled courtroom in Newark. As I sat there waiting for her to take the Oath of Allegiance, the last step in the citizenship process, I looked around the courtroom and was humbled by the faces surrounding me, their emotions so apparent, and their pride so obvious. I tried to count the different languages I was hearing: Spanish, Russian, French, and so many more I couldn’t identify. The one thing that unified these disparate tribes was that soon they would become citizens of the same country, the United States.

Part of the legal process of becoming a citizen involves taking an exam. After looking at the study guide, I realized people who study to become U.S. citizens probably know more about our country than the rest of us. Just for fun, try answering these multiple choice questions culled from the study guide. Keep in mind that, were you actually taking the test, there would be no multiple choices.

1) Where does the concept of Freedom of Speech come from?

  1. Merchantville
  2. The Declaration of Independence
  3. The Bill of Rights
  4. People magazine

2) What special group advises the president?

  1. The Senate
  2. Sasha and Malia
  3. The Cabinet
  4. Manny, Moe and Jack

3) If both the president and the vice president were to perish, who would take over?

  1. Speaker of the House of Representatives
  2. The Action News Team
  3. Secretary of State
  4. Clarence Thomas

4) How many amendments are there to the Constitution?

  1. What’s a constitution?
  2. Six
  3. To make laws
  4. 27

5) Under the Constitution, some powers belong to your states. Name one of those powers.

  1. To print money
  2. To approve zoning and land use
  3. To resolve marital issues
  4. To defend Governor Christie’s weight

Obviously, the immigrants taking the citizenship test are in this country legally. But there are 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States already. What happens to them? And why should it matter to us?

In high school, I was not an avid student of American history, nor was I particularly patriotic. As an adult, I could have answered very few of the sample questions from the citizenship test, so it's fortunate I didn’t need to. But by virtue of being born here, I had rights people in other countries only dream of having. Still, it wasn’t until I left our land of plenty that I began to appreciate the many “gifts” democracy gives us, very few strings attached.

I lived with the Brazilian side of my family for a year. During this time, I found my lack of freedom to be stifling and frustrating. I was suddenly a second-class citizen in a man-dominated world. I was an American girl. In their eyes, I was rich and loose. And that is the way I was treated. Women didn’t go to the movies alone, so that particular joy was out of the question. Ditto with driving. It was far too dangerous for me to drive alone, day or night, according to my uncles. Until I experienced life in a different country, I didn’t appreciate the freedoms I took for granted here. One doesn’t truly understand freedom until one is no longer free.

I have great empathy for immigrants here legally and illegally, because when you get to the core of the issue, we all want the same things. We want our children to have the best, we want to be able to provide a good life for our family, and we want the personal freedoms our Bill of Rights gives us. 

Hopefully, now that both parties are working together, we will see true reform for our outdated policies. But will bipartisanship spread to other issues that divide us, like gun safety and/or abortion rights?

Don’t hold your breath.

(answer key: 3, 3, 1, 4, 2)

Chris Welch February 18, 2013 at 04:21 PM
Why should it matter to us you ask. Because the illegal ones broke our nations laws to get here when the crossed the border. Employers are breaking the law by hiring them. People like your mother ( I'll assume), and people I work with, have spent years and thousands of dollars trying to become citizens legally. Are you prepared to give them all their money back ? Or is it only the illegal immigrants that get a free ride to citizenship ? And it isn't just migrant farm workers & landscappers. The illegals are also taking jobs in the construction trades that at one time paid US Citizens a good living wage. Maybe it will matter to you when someone in your family is at risk of losing a job to some illegal that will do the work for half the pay.

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