It may be a cliché that we are a nation of immigrants, but statistics show that it is as true today as in any other period in our history. And while Americans may debate the best way to bring noncitizens into the civic life of our communities, there is widespread, strong agreement that when someone from another country takes the affirmative step to take the oath of loyalty and become a citizen of this country, he should be welcomed and encouraged to be a part of our country and our social and political life.
The most obvious and fundamental form of civic participation is voting. In our democracy, the voting process is the means by which we ensure that every citizen has an equal voice and a role to play in self–governance, i.e. the decision making of the country and local communities. It is also a way to make the people of this country feel a part of our collective polity and our historic democratic system of governance. As a society, we should strive to ensure that new citizens become engaged, incorporated and invested in democracy by encouraging their participation in elections.
This is especially appropriate given the level of commitment and devotion to this country these citizens demonstrate in going through the process of leaving their homes and taking all the steps one needs to take in order to become a citizen of the United States. Indeed, speakers at naturalization ceremonies, including representatives from the government, typically extol the virtues of a participatory democracy and the importance of voting.
Unfortunately, the federal government takes few steps to facilitate new citizens’ participation in our democracy. The government currently does nothing systematically to help new Americans to get registered or vote, and the efforts of non–profit organizations are under–resourced and cannot reach more than a fraction of newly naturalized citizens. And that is reflected in the poor voter participation numbers of recently naturalized Americans relative to native born citizens.
There is a simple way we can ensure that new citizens have the first tool they need to become active participants in the democratic system: The agency that is responsible for naturalizing new citizens can, at naturalization ceremonies, provide a means for them to register to vote immediately by distributing registration forms, providing assistance in completing them, and transmitting them to the proper election authority. The agency in question–the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agency within the Department of Homeland Security–has not yet taken on this role on a national basis. For USCIS staff to undertake this responsibility would be logistically compatible with the duties that they already carry out at these ceremonies, and would only serve to enhance the role of USCIS and its representatives in the naturalization process.
It is time, systematically and uniformly, to give every new citizen the most basic, simple tool to becoming part of our democracy: new citizens should be uniformly provided voter registration services and assistance at their naturalization ceremonies.