Republic, Found: Constitutional literacy and citizenship

National Constitution Center senior fellow Christopher Phillips shares a personal story about constitutional literacy and citizenry.

ChrisPhillipsThe third Monday in May begins like any other day for the Phillips family, except my wife Cecilia and I dressed more formally than usual. After we shepherd our oldest daughter to school, we make our way with our youngest to the local Immigration and Naturalization Services field office, in a complex that’s part of the Department of Homeland Security. After my wife retrieved a card with a number on it from the receptionist, we went to a waiting room, where, appropriately, we waited, and waited.

I met Cecilia in 1996 just after she arrived in the United States from Mexico. Her plan was to come here to matriculate in a master’s degree program in education, complete her studies in one intensive calendar year, then return to her country, where she planned to continue her advocacy work for indigenous groups. Though born and raised in teeming Mexico City, after graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, she took a position as a teacher in an indigenous community in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. After a year there, she was able to speak the Mayan tongue, Tzeltal, spoken by community denizens, who had ‘adopted’ her as one of their own. Cecilia’s plan was to return to Chiapas and build on her projects there as soon as she earned her graduate degree.

When love intervened, her plan was delayed. Cecilia took part in one of my first Socrates Café confabs – in fact, she was the only person who attended that night. As we shyly danced around the question she wanted to explore – what is love? — I was having trouble focusing on what we were saying, I was so mesmerized by her. found myself hoping that we’d have all the time in the world in the future to continue this discussion. Less than two years later, we married. Exactly 10 years to the day we met, our first child entered the world.

Now here we are at INS with our youngest, Cybele, over 10 months old, the picture of patience while Cecilia and I fidget and squirm as we waited for her name to be called.

When we first knew each other, Cecilia had never given serious thought to becoming a U.S. citizen. Her aim in life was to do her bit to bring the promise of Mexico, as spelled out in its Constitution, more into alignment with actual practice. She loved the often-poetic cadences and soaring rhetoric of Mexico’s Constitution, especially how it ballyhooed the establishment of an inclusive and participatory society, and above all else, its ironclad guarantee of a quality education for all children.

The reality, though, was that millions of Mexico’s youngest had no hope of receiving even the most rudimentary instruction. After we married and began returning with frequency to Mexico, she initiated a ‘classroom without walls’ project in San Cristobal de las Casas, the capital city of Chiapas. She ventured to wherever indigenous children were clustered. She paid their parents out of her own pocket so they would allow her to take time away from their children’s 7-day-a-way, 10-hours-a-day (if not more) workday selling their parents’ beautiful handmade wares on the street, giving them the gift of literacy.

Cecilia and I sometimes had a discussion around this question: If a nation’s Constitution guarantees certain rights, but those bureaucrats and elected officials who govern its institutions fail to see to it that these rights apply to more than a small and privileged coterie of its citizens, are those responsible for this state of affairs committing unconstitutional acts?

Cecilia’s name is called over the loudspeaker. So are those of about 40 others. They hail from places like Uzbekistan, Haiti, China, Iraq, Nigeria, Ecuador, and Egypt. Cecilia is the only one from Mexico. After they file into the room, Cybele and I file in with the other guests and take a seat.

With our now-sleeping baby daughter in one arm and a camera in my free hand, I record on video as my wife gives her citizenship oath to the United States. It is surprisingly moving. Cecilia had studied long and hard for her citizenship exam, which she’d taken a month earlier. She didn’t miss a question.

Among other foundational areas of American government, she had to be well-versed about our Constitution. Some of the questions she had to know the answers were: What does the Constitution do? What three words in our Constitution establish the idea of self-government? What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment? How many amendments does the Constitution have? What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?

Those applying for U.S. citizenship have to answer correctly at least six of the ten questions posed to them. An impressive 93 percent of them pass the test. Yet a comprehensive telephone poll, conducted by the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University, shows that only 65 percent of native-born Americans could answer correctly six of the 10 questions that aspiring naturalized Americans have to answer if they’re to become citizens.

Michael Ford, the director of the center, finds these results alarming. As he put it in one interview with a newspaper reporter, “If we are civic illiterates, the chances of losing our freedom is greater than being invaded by aliens or a foreign country.”

As I watch Cecilia give her oath of citizenship, I think of my grandparents on my father’s side. They entered the U.S. through Ellis Island on March 29, 1910, arriving on the S.S. Chicago. They were among the first large wave of immigrants from the Dodecanese (“Twelve”) Islands region of Greece, and hailed from the tiny volcanic island of Nisyros. Though ethnic Greeks, they were officially Italian citizens at the time they immigrated: the Dodecanese’ denizens recently had come together and declared independence from the Ottoman Empire, only to be promptly invaded and occupied by Italy. The bureaucrat who processed them in Ellis Island summarily changed their last name from Philipou to Phillips.

My grandparents got here in the nick of time. A majority in Congress – which is charged by Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4 of our Constitution “(t)o establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization” — concerned by the flood of immigrants from southern Italy and Greece, passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which placed severe restrictions on the number of Southern Europeans that could enter the U.S. in order to stanch the flow.

My Yaya didn’t much cotton to the U.S. at first. Slowly but surely, though, she immersed herself in life here. Even as she continued to celebrate Greek culture and heritage — she became the first Greek teacher in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, and was so much in demand that she had a waiting list of students – she also became more and more enamored with our constitutional republic. She was a devotee of our principal founding documents, the Declaration and Constitution. While she preferred the lofty yet accessible and galvanizing rhetoric of the Declaration to the prosaic and pragmatic tone of the Constitution, she believed both had their rightful role. She exalted the Declaration’s encomium to political equality and liberty. Like my wife, she believed that both documents were entwined.

Cecilia’s foundational studies in our supreme law of the land for her citizenship exam have proved the staging ground for much deeper immersion in the document. For instance, she can more than hold her own in spirited and nuanced give-and-takes about constitutional matters that touch on Supreme Court decisions, such as the recent one on ‘Hobby Lobby.’ Such exchanges in turn propel her to dig deeper into the public sphere of her adopted country and join other vital debates that further shape and frame our republic.

The citizenship ceremony lasts about 30 minutes. It is both solemn and celebratory as Cecilia and over 40 others swear to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” To my wife, and surely to most if not all of those giving their oath of citizenship, it’s difficult to support and defend the Constitution if you don’t take it upon yourself to be well-versed in it. By Cecilia’s perspective, constitutional literacy is at the core of setting an American citizen free.

Christopher Phillips is a Senior Education Fellow at the National Constitution Center. Dr. Phillips was most recently senior writing and research fellow with the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. He is the founder and executive director of Democracy Café, a nonprofit that seeks to engage more citizens in the democratic process.

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