Enter the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History through its Mall entrance, and something unusual takes hold.
The 960 reflective tiles that are crafted into a five-story American flag, part of the Star Spangled Banner exhibit, sparkle in the ample light of the five-story atrium. Over the summer, the space has welcomed throngs of visitors who when they enter the atrium, seem to slow their pace, or even stop, causing massive tourist traffic jams.
The museum's director Brent Glass knows what it is about the space that draws visitors to it. He frequently likens it to a town square, or a place where visitors can exchange ideas and information.
Yesterday, the atrium served as the stage for a naturalization ceremony, one of many held nationwide in honor of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. "Our goal is to shine new light on American history, literally and figuratively," Glass said. "We are surrounded by objects that provide a deeper history of what it means to be an American."
There couldn't be a more fitting place to become a U.S. citizen.
As the crowd assembled, the first two rows of chairs, number 1 through 26 on the back, stood at the ready. From here, the class of new citizens would take their oath. Family and friends sat in the rows behind them while representatives from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) milled about dressed in dark suits. Intrigued, visitors to the museum wearing the common tourist uniform of shorts and flip-flops looked on puzzled at the assemblage. By the time Glass took the microphone, people were crowding the rails on the third-floor balcony clambering to witness the ceremony.
Sarah Taylor, the district director of USCIS, presented the candidates for citizenship and read off a diverse list of 19 countries from whence they came—from Guatemala to Norway, India to Greece and Mongolia to South Africa.
Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the USCIS, led the group in the Oath of Allegiance.
"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."
Keynote speaker Hilda Solis, U.S. Secretary of Labor and the first Hispanic woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, knows the challenges that face immigrants on their path to becoming citizens. She watched both of her parents take the oath and remembers accompanying her mother to citizenship classes as a child. "This is what the U.S. is built upon: the strength, tenacity and hard work of all the immigrants who have come here," she said.
Glass extended a unique Smithsonian invitation to the new Americans. He asked them to look around their homes and communities and to consider donating artifacts to the museum relating to their immigration experience to strengthen the museum's collection. After all, he said "this is your country and your National Museum of American History."
Yesterday, the USCIS welcomed more than 8,400 new American citizens who were naturalized at some 75 ceremonies across the nation. Some other venues include: New York City's Ellis Island; Pennsylvania's Valley Forge National Historical Park; Little Rock, Arkansas' William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Denver's Civic Center Park.