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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 September, 2003, 00:47 GMT 01:47 UK
Citizenship classes US-style

By Matt Wells
BBC correspondent in New York

The Stars and Stripes flutter over New York
The US takes citizenship seriously
As the UK prepares to give citizenship classes to those planning to naturalise, BBC News Online looks at how similar courses work on the other side of the Atlantic.

Later this month Americans will be celebrating national Citizenship Day - a sign of how seriously they take the right to vote, or hold a passport.

Here in New York, the city council is hoping to give the 17 September event a bit more beef than usual.

Michael Ognibene is spokesman for the Department of Youth and Community Development, which is co-ordinating the day.

He says: "Citizenship for native-born as well as naturalised Americans means belonging.

"It's a privilege and a status worth celebrating. It may have fallen aside a bit in recent years, but since 11 September, it's surely become more relevant."

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this country
Patricia Morzycka
Citizenship is a tangible distinction in the world's most powerful republic. You cannot vote or run for political office without it.

Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of people who live perfectly legally in the USA, do not have it, relying instead on official residency status.

Citizenship does not give you many more rights in terms of employment than if you were a permanent resident, says the paralegal officer for the Arab-American Family Support Center, Khadija Taouil.

But the vast majority of immigrants who use her facility, see it as a precious and desirable goal.

She says: "They want to be able to bring their families here to the US, and they want passports, to travel freely under the protection of the flag.

"They want to melt into this society, which offers them much better opportunities on every level, than most of the countries they've come from."

Learning hurdles

Here in the land of opportunity, the idea of striving for those precious rights and accepting the responsibilities of citizenship, is a given.

It is not enough to be enthusiastic. You need to pass over several learning hurdles before being sworn in at the final naturalisation ceremony.

The famous "oath of allegiance" to the flag also includes an oath of "renunciation" towards any previous government or state. It is a bit like being born-again, as a brand-new American.

He wants to change his name - every time he tries to get a job, people refuse to hire him once they see his name
Khadija Taouil
Support worker on Arab client
New citizens and permanent residents are also obliged to fight for the Stars and Stripes, if lawmakers require it. They must submit to rigorous investigation if the new Department of Homeland Security - which has responsibility for citizenship and immigration - requires it.

The citizenship exam is designed to make sure newcomers take time to learn the basic history of their new culture and society.

Prospective Americans have to learn answers to 100 key questions, although they will only be examined on 10. They must get eight right to pass.

Most must also pass a simple reading and writing test in English, although many will hardly speak the language in their daily lives.

Patricia Morzycka is Polish, although the 23-year-old soon hopes to be a US citizen, thanks to her father who swore his oath of allegiance only last year, at a ceremony in Manhattan.

Active engagement

She is here on a six-month visa, but a Green Card followed by citizenship, is now automatic.

She says: "I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this country.

"At home we talk about the McDonald's culture, but I really appreciate the lifestyle I can look forward to here both financially and in terms of opportunities. It's very nice."

For all the active engagement involved in US citizenship culture, David Blunkett would do well to remember there are some deep-seated social problems in the new age of enhanced "Homeland Security" which it can't reach.

Khadija Taouil complained about one of her clients of Arab origin, whose standard citizenship application appears to have been stalled for the last 12 months.

"He came to me this afternoon and he wants to change his name. Every time he tries to get a job, people refuse to hire him - once they see his name. He's getting desperate," she said.




SEE ALSO:
Citizenship: The immigrants' view
03 Sep 03  |  Politics
Tea and cakes for the new Britons
25 Jul 03  |  Politics
UK 'citizenship test' unveiled
31 Jan 03  |  UK News
Blunkett names 'Britishness' chief
10 Sep 02  |  Politics


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