On April 22, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson met with leaders in faith, business and law enforcement to discuss immigration enforcement and implore Congress to act on stalled immigration overhaul legislation.
A few miles away, in a small room steeped in history, 20 children raised their right hands and swore allegiance to the United States of America.
These children hailed from 15 different countries: from Egypt to El Salvador, Pakistan to Peru, South Korea to Syria. “I was born in India. I came here when I was 3,” said 10-year-old Pratyush Vijayakumar. For him, being an American citizen means “that I’m from the U.S.” Pratyush joined the other children for the third annual Special Citizenship Ceremony at President Abraham Lincoln’s idyllic cottage in Northwest D.C. This ceremony is a unique celebration of children’s American citizenship, although they were technically already citizens before taking the Oath of Allegiance.
The children, who ranged in age from 7 to 15, derived their citizenship through adoption by American citizens or their parents’ own naturalization.
“Many of [the children] were brought here when they were young and they may not be as cognizant of their immigration story as their parents are,” said Dan Cosgrove of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “So this is a chance to celebrate their immigration story.”
The ceremony also helps put a human face on a topic that, while it’s being discussed from everyone from Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to President Barack Obama to Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., tends toward the abstract, with terms such as “amnesty” and “guest worker” thrown around.
The children and their families, dressed in their Sunday best, arrived on the grounds of President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, where Lincoln lived during the summers of the Civil War.
The cottage itself is on the campus of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, or the Soldiers’ Home, whose rolling hills stretch over nearly 300 acres — an oasis for a president plagued by war and for families celebrating their American citizenship 150 years later. As the families from D.C. and Northern Virginia arrived, they entered the visitor center to check in with USCIS and pick up their envelopes containing the citizenship certificate and a small American flag.
While the families checked in, the children participated in one of the cottage’s signature activities: making their very own stovepipe hats. The children taped black construction paper to a styrofoam rim as representatives from Lincoln’s Cottage explained the hat’s legacy and how the 16th president would often store important papers inside its lining.
At one table, Senior Chief Fire Controlman Eric Paschal of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln helped a young boy piece together his hat. Paschal came to the event with his fellow sailors, who were serving as the ceremony’s color guard. He was grateful to attend the ceremony and added that immigrants are often unfairly stigmatized in the United States.
“They’re just like you and me,” said Paschal, looking around at the crowded room as families laughed and snapped photos of their children donning Lincoln hats. “They just want something better for their kids.”
The families then walked to Lincoln’s Cottage and entered a small room packed with chairs — the Emancipation Room, where Lincoln developed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Your story is now a part of the history of this place,” the cottage’s director, Erin Carlson Mast told the children as the ceremony began. After sailors from the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln presented the American flag and attendees sang the national anthem, the children were called to recite their oath.
Each child stood as his or her country of origin was called. Then the children raised their right hands, renounced their former citizenship and recited the Oath of Allegiance. “That I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same,” the children repeated after USCIS District Director Sarah Taylor.
The children then recited the Pledge of Allegiance as Taylor told them, “We place our right hand over our hearts because we love this country.” A video message from Obama followed Taylor’s address.
“Today marks a very special day in your life. You’ve traveled a long path to get here,” the president said.
For many of the families in the audience, the path to becoming American citizens was certainly a lengthy one.
“The whole process is a long, drawn process. Very long,” said Praytush’s father, Jai Vijayakumar, who said it took his family seven years to receive green cards and earn citizenship.
However, he said he was “one of the fortunate ones” because he was able to obtain a green card fairly quickly. Vijayakumar said he didn’t mind the waiting period between acquiring a green card and applying for citizenship. He did say that the green card process could be streamlined; he knows people who waited 10 years to receive the coveted card.
USCIS’s Taylor said there is a distinction between a family’s immigration process and acquiring citizenship.
“The immigration journey that leads to citizenship can be a lengthy one for many people,” said Taylor. “It can be very complicated depending on your life circumstances that brought you to this country.”
Taylor pointed out that the average processing time for naturalization in the Washington district is six months. In order to apply for citizenship, applicants must file a form, attend an interview, be tested on English and pass a U.S. history and civics test.
Throughout the ceremony, the children were reminded that their citizenship was a gift from their parents, who studied hard to pass the citizenship test or went through the extensive process of inter-country adoption.
For the children at Lincoln’s Cottage, becoming an American citizen is just the beginning.
“I’d like to see an amendment that naturalized citizens like him can become the president,” Vijayakumar said, placing his hand on his son, who was wearing his paper Lincoln hat.
At the prospect of becoming the leader of the free world one day, Pratyush shrugged and replied, “Sure.”