Welcoming New Citizens

After having waited at least five years, paying $680, and passing a test on America’s history and traditions, 25 new citizens took the Oath of Allegiance.

“We are truly a nation of immigrants,” Antonia Novello, the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as United States Surgeon General, said to the 25 participants who became citizens on Tuesday. “Citizenship is the one thing that unites us all in the United States.”

The 25 new citizens—who represented just as many countries, including Belarus, China, South Africa, and Venezuela—were on campus to participate in a naturalization ceremony, the final step in their journey to become official U.S. citizens.

After having waited at least five years, paying $680, and passing a test on America’s history and traditions, each legal permanent resident took the Oath of Allegiance and were welcomed as naturalized citizens of the United States. “Today, you swear allegiance to our flag. Remember to serve it, protect it, honor it, and respect it,” Novello said.

The ceremony is more than a pleasant pageant. It is also a reminder of what it means to be an American citizen. As Novello emphasized, becoming a U.S. citizen means becoming an active, informed member of society. “ ‘A society of sheep will in time beget a government of wolves.’ We must engage, participate, and act,’ ” she said.

Civic engagement, which Novello called “the antidote to cynicism,” also means not taking the right to vote for granted. In the last election, only 37 percent of the population turned out to vote. “I think it should be a wakeup call. It is a reminder of the country that we live in,” says Assistant Professor of Political Science Julia Maskivker, who along with Melissa McGuire-Maniau ’15 and the Rollins’ Democracy Project helped organize the event on campus, the first in the College’s history.

Moreover, the statement is more than theory to Maskivker, who was born in Argentina, and must wait another year for her chance to change her status from legal permanent resident to citizen. “This is the most free and wealthiest democracy in the history of the world,” Maskivker says. “Yes, we may have reasons to complain, but we have it great here.”

Leaving the instability of Argentina to pursue her doctorate on a fellowship at Columbia University in New York, Maskivker became an admirer of the freedom and steadiness of the U.S., especially compared to the life she left behind. It made her feel grateful for the opportunity and obliged to give back. “I want to be civically engaged,” she says. “I may just be a little drop in the sea, but with the right to vote, I’ll have an eternal pass to the public dialogue.”

Indeed, one of the issues Maskivker and her students have been researching in her class Theories of Democracy is why so many legal permanent citizens never apply for citizenship. They already pay taxes, so why don’t the more than 800,000 eligible legal residents in Florida, including about 70,000 in the Orlando area, not want to cast a vote on how their tax money is spent?

“What’s holding them back?” asks McGuire-Maniau, who expects to graduate from the Hamilton Holt School in May with a major in international affairs. “Why wouldn’t you want to have a say? If you value living freely, you have to contribute to the decision making.”

In an effort to find out more, McGuire-Maniau created a questionnaire that students in Maskivker’s class use to survey legal permanent residents. The survey sample is not large enough yet to reach a valid conclusion. Nevertheless, some of the recurring reasons include lack of funds to pay for the filing fee and concerns about the time and process.

McGuire-Maniau, who is a citizen by virtue of being born in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, knows that some legal permanent residents do have cause to fear. Her husband, who came to the U.S. from Mexico with his mother when he was a minor, was nearly deported because of an administrative snafu.

McGuire-Maniau said that he and many others were victimized by a group that took their money with the promise that they could speed up the citizenship process. Although the fraudulent group was later the subject of law enforcement, McGuire-Maniau’s husband—along with many others—faced the prospect of deportation. He narrowly escaped thanks to the efforts of his wife. She reviewed court transcripts and proved that the translations her husband heard were not accurate on several crucial points.

The experience easily might have soured McGuire-Maniau on the democratic process, but, instead, she became an advocate for more participation. “Our democracy can only be as strong as the people who turn out to vote,” she says. “I don’t care where you fall on the political spectrum; I care that you educate yourself, care about our democracy, and vote smart. Everything depends on it.”