The History of Citizenship Day Is a Reminder That Being an American Has Always Been ComplicatedRoundup
tags: citizenship, immigration, Truman, Citizenship Day
S. Deborah Kang is an associate professor at California State University San Marcos and the author of The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954.
During his first Citizenship Day speech on Sept. 17, 1952, President Truman warmly greeted the immigrants attending the annual meeting of the National Conference on Citizenship in Washington, D.C. Later that day, they would take the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony, shedding their status as immigrants to become U.S. citizens. In commemoration of this momentous event, Truman articulated a bold view of American citizenship, one that relinquished nationalistic animosities and racial prejudices and embraced the principles of “tolerance, friendship and equality.” “We welcome you,” Truman declared, “not to a narrow nationalism but to a great community based on a set of universal ideals.”
Truman’s cosmopolitan vision of U.S. citizenship would not have surprised his contemporaries. Throughout his presidency, he took strong stands on the issues of civil rights and, later, immigrant rights. Although Truman opposed “social mixing” between racial groups, he nevertheless ordered the desegregation of the military and signed an executive order that prohibited discrimination in the federal workplace. When conservative Southern Democrats blocked his farsighted initiatives in Congress, Truman launched investigations that raised public awareness of the severe exploitation endured by domestic and immigrant farmworkers and the urgent need for civil rights legislation that would protect the rights and even lives of African Americans.
Yet Truman’s immigration policies also reflected his desire for pursuit of reform, and came at a moment when his stance on the matter faced great opposition on Capitol Hill. More than half a century later, his words on that holiday serve as a reminder that as long as Americans have been celebrating citizenship, they’ve also been debating what it is.
In the months leading up to that Citizenship Day speech, Truman fought alongside liberal legislators in Congress to create a permanent system of refugee admissions, and to mitigate the racially discriminatory features of the nation’s immigration laws, particularly the national origins quota system—which limited the admission of southern and eastern European immigrants—and the regulations that barred the entry of Asian immigrants. Truman and his allies defended these measures not only as a matter of principle but also Cold War political strategy. In its effort to win the loyalties of communist and incipient communist states, the United States could not claim to be the global defender of individual rights when its own immigration laws mandated “unequal treatment based on race.”
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