Sept. 17 is Citizenship Day, which commemorates the date in 1787 when our founders adopted and signed the U.S. Constitution. This day has come to be marked by a series of special naturalization ceremonies nationwide that highlight the steps immigrants take to share in the rights and responsibilities we enjoy as Americans.
During my tenure as an official in the Department of Homeland Security spanning two administrations, I've witnessed thousands of people becoming citizens. I even had the special honor to myself administer the Oath of Allegiance and legally grant the assembled naturalization candidates U.S. citizenship. Every ceremony was immensely moving and made me all the prouder to be an American.
This Sept. 17, however, I'm concerned about the state of citizenship in America. Much of the news focuses on the administration's crackdown against illegal immigration, but its moves against legal immigration and non-partisan operational processes are just ramping up. These include canceling legal protections for hundreds of thousands, limiting the ability for immigrants to work or start a business, and erecting barriers to permanent residence and thus narrowing the pipeline of immigrants eligible for citizenship. In addition, a backlog to naturalize has grown 87 percent over the past two years due to slowed processing.
This all unfolds alongside the administration's overwhelming emphasis on immigration enforcement, drastic reduction in the number of refugees or asylum seekers we protect, and even calling the natural born or naturalized citizenship of some Americans into question. Meanwhile, the president and his team encourage a divisive and hateful ideology on immigrants and foreigners in their speeches and on social media.
As a result, a far more adversarial "us" vs. "them" posture taints operational processes that should be free from politics. Of course, no immigrant should be granted a benefit without proper checks and screening, and instances of fraud and vulnerabilities in the system must be vigilantly combated. The government officials I know who focus on these issues are highly competent, thoughtful, and innovative in their service across administrations.
A rigorous process does not have to be an unwelcoming one, and it certainly does not have to be dispiriting or dehumanizing by design. The Trump administration's efforts are patently intended to discourage: discourage applications, discourage immigrants from staying here, and discourage immigrants from coming, or even wanting to come, to the United States.
Reflecting on immigration policy changes under President Trump, the Migration Policy Institute concluded in July 2018 that: "All of these actions move the United States toward the administration's ultimate goals of decreasing immigrant admissions and expanding deportations."
Bearing witness at a naturalization ceremony, however, the toils of process seem to fade into the background. Immigrants stand up individually as their country of prior nationality is called. Following the oath, they sit in union as Americans and swell with civic pride. E pluribus unum: out of many, one. It is a powerful experience that feels like America at its best.
It is a particularly poignant reflection for me at a time when I see our nation's extended hand recoiling. Instead of erecting barriers that discourage, we should encourage and celebrate the immigrants willing to take on the rights and responsibilities our citizenship bestows. Our greatest strength as a nation comes from our way of life — the freedoms that are a beacon of hope and opportunity at home and abroad. This Citizenship Day, let us remember that there are few more powerful manifestations of this strength than our capacity to welcome people who share in the ideals that bind us, to join us as one.