The Significance of a U.S. Naturalized Citizen’s Vote

By A.M. Peabody

This is a switch from the topic of our cause, female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).  Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation does not get involved in politics, unless there is a bill or decision that affects the campaign against FGM/C.  I want to talk about how easy it is for us to take opportunities and privileges for granted without a thought.

On September 25, 1996, accompanied by a co-worker, I was sworn in as a citizen of the United States in Arlington, Virginia at approximately 3:00pm EST.  I was one of the fifty-five immigrants who raised our right hands and took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States.  The reason why naturalized citizens do not take their citizenship for granted is because this privilege was not automatic, due to their place of birth.  Citizens by birth were born with the silver spoon in their mouths, and some of them have no idea what it means earn the right to vote.

The following is what we actually recited on that sunny afternoon.  “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; 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; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”   Citizens born in the U.S. never have to recite those words.

I took those words seriously because I had wrestled with the decision to renounce my allegiance to Liberia; I wondered had my parents and prior generations who had helped build Liberia been alive would they have considered me a traitor.  My final decision was to take the opportunity to have a voice in this country; I knew that I could have continued to live here in the U.S. for the rest of my life without being a citizen.  However without the right to vote and help decide who would represent me in Congress when it came to decisions that would affect my family and me.  I did not want to just be a resident here; I wanted to make a difference in this country.

I don’t know about anyone else but becoming a citizen was significant and emotional for me.  In 1996, my sisters Rachel and Merle also were sworn in as citizens.  We were given a hundred civic questions to study and prepare for the citizenship test.  We studied and tested each other by phone.  I even took my questions to work with me and had my co-workers test me.  I observed that when I in reverse tested my co-workers who were born in the U.S., they did not know most of the civic answers.  I was surprised, and they assured me that they had studied civics in school but no one ever retains those answers.  I begged to differ and told them that in Liberia we were expected to retain Liberian civics throughout our lives.  My civic lessons became fun in our lunch room, and everyone became involved in the excitement of my becoming a citizen.  Some of them had never met anyone who had to actually study for a citizenship test.

My sister Rachel took her test first in Maryland where she resided.  She called me to celebrate that she had passed her test.  She told me that one had to be a moron to fail because the test was multiple choice and the answers were all there.  My sister Merle took her test in Texas, and she too called to celebrate and brag about how simple the test was.  She said they only asked her 3 simple civic questions.  In spite of what they told me about their tests, I knew that Virginia could be different, and I did not know what to expect so I continued to study the 100 questions.

On September 24, 1996, I took my test in Arlington.  I was ecstatic that I had invested the time to study for my test.  Virginia surprised me with 10 essay civic questions.  One of the questions was to list the first 13 colonies in the U.S.  I took my time and responded to all 10 questions and proofread them before handing my test to the U.S. Justice Department tester.  She checked my answers and extended her hand to congratulate me.  She said, “You answered all of them correctly.”  She took my green card from me, and asked me if I could be back there the next afternoon at 3:00pm to be sworn in.  I was excited because I was scheduled to travel to Jamaica in October, and without my green card, that would not have been possible.  I thanked her and assured her that I would be there the next day.

I suppose you recall that 1996 was also an election year, which means my sisters Rachel, Merle and I all voted for the first time in our lives. We had never voted in Liberia so this was significant for us.  It was a privilege for us to walk in a booth and cast our votes in 3 different states.  The first two things I did as a citizen of the United States were to apply for my voter’s registration card and for my U.S. passport.  On October 18, 1996, I traveled for the first time as a U.S. citizen and on November 5, 1996 I voted for the first time as a citizen of the United States.  Since November 1996, I have not missed one election.  I do not only vote in the presidential elections; I vote in every election.  You see, like all other naturalized citizens, I had to earn that right to become a citizen by passing a civic test.

According to what I have read in U.S. history, all African American parents and grandparents should teach their children and grandchildren from an early age how significant it is to exercise their rights as citizens.  When I watch films in which African Americans struggled to gain the right to vote, I do not understand how any African American can sit out an election.  Although they too were born here, their ancestors still had to earn that right for them.

Women in America did not always enjoy the right to vote, and they too should remember how their ancestors had to earn the right to vote as women in America.  Whether or not you were born here, naturalized, a descendant of African Americans or a woman, I hope everyone votes smartly today and exercise your civil rights as citizens.  May God bless America and all Americans.