“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
These are the very first words that I utter on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates at the beginning of each legislative day.
As the first Asian-born immigrant elected to Virginia’s state legislature since it began meeting in 1619, these words have tremendous personal meaning to me.
When I place my right hand over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the words penned in 1892 by Francis Bellamy remind me of that day in December 1991 when I became an American citizen by choice.
That day, the Pledge became more than mere words memorized by school children. For me, making a public commitment of loyalty to America also meant that many doors of opportunities opened for me.
As a citizen, I was able to fulfill my version of the American Dream in a way that I could never have imagined as a 14-year-old immigrant arriving on these shores.
One year after becoming naturalized, I began law school so that I could eventually work as a lawyer, helping immigrants like my family obtain their equal rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
My American citizenship also allowed me to obtain meaningful jobs in the executive and legislative branches of our federal government where I had the opportunity to help shape our nation’s public policies.
With my citizenship, I earned the right to vote for presidents, senators, members of Congress and state and local officials whose decisions affect my family’s well-being.
And, as a naturalized American, I have the honor of serving my neighbors as their elected state representative.
My personal journey demonstrates that the benefits of citizenship are numerous. Yet, there are over 8.6 million immigrants in the United States today who are eligible to become citizens who have yet to pursue this goal.
In Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia alone, there are approximately 342,000 people eligible to naturalize. About 30% of them, or approximately 97,000, are immigrants from Asia like me.
Why are there so many immigrants who have not yet taken steps to naturalize? Do they think it’s too hard? Too expensive? Too scary to deal with a government bureaucracy?
I can say from personal experience that becoming an American citizen is an easier process than one might think if the applicant is already a qualified legal permanent resident. And a great opportunity to take this step is coming up soon.
Because the United States Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, we now celebrate September 17th of each year as “Citizenship Day.”
On Citizenship Day 2016, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and professionals affiliated with the New Americans Campaign will be joined by volunteers to host nine workshops across DC, Maryland, and Virginia to help qualified applicants complete their naturalization process.
These workshops provide low-cost and even free assistance in some cases to make sure that cost alone does not become a barrier for eligible new Americans. In fact, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offers fee waivers for individuals who are low-income or receive certain forms of government benefits.
Applicants need to demonstrate an ability to speak, read, and write some English, but they do not need to be as fluent as native-born Americans. That is why many of the attorneys and volunteers at these citizenship workshops are bilingual and willing to help you with every aspect of the naturalization process.
Twenty years ago, another piece of my American Dream came true at a citizenship workshop, just like the ones to be offered on September 17th. At that time, I was a regular volunteer at citizenship workshops supported by nonprofit organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.
At one workshop, I met a fellow volunteer attorney who was also passionate about helping immigrants become U.S. citizens. Like me, she came to America from Korea as a child, and like me, she found a better life for herself through the gift of public education, hard work, and career opportunities afforded by holding American citizenship.
By the end of that day, after laboring together to assist hundreds of immigrants with their documents, I worked up my courage to ask her out on a date . . . Today, we are proud parents of two kids who are American by birth.
If you are eligible to become a U.S. citizen but have not taken steps toward obtaining the status, why not start the process on September 17th? There are plenty of people like my wife and me who are eager to help you unlock the path to your American Dream.
Start your journey to American citizenship now. This year, pledge to make September 17th YOUR Citizenship Day.
Delegate Mark Keam is a state legislator representing 35th District (Fairfax County) in the Virginia House of Delegates since January 2010. He is a member of the National Advisory Council for Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.
This column is part of a series of op-eds by public officials about citizenship, published by New America Media in collaboration with the national, nonpartisan network New Americans Campaign. To learn more about citizenship workshops near you, go to:www.newamericanscampaign.com/events.