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Remarks by Secretary Tom Ridge at Civic Integration Symposium

Building a Common Civic Identity Symposium
Woodrow Wilson International Center
September 23, 2004
(Remarks as Prepared)

Thank you for that introduction. I’m honored to be here with all of you today and I want to thank you for your participation in this important dialogue on how we can continue to more effectively assist the many immigrants who choose to make America home. Even as we work daily to strengthen our homeland defenses and secure our borders from those who wish us harm, we must not neglect the millions who cross our borders in search of a better life.

Just as Coast Guard patrols of our harbors, biological weapons training for our first responders, or x-ray screening of air cargo are all part of homeland security, naturalization ceremonies, improved immigration services, and citizenship education are also an integral part of homeland security. For our country’s foundation rests not on military might or feats of conquer, but on the ideals of liberty and democracy. And it is those ideals for which we are under attack.

The terrorists aim not just to destroy our buildings, but to destroy our way of life and undermine the principles for which we stand. It is those principles that have drawn wave after wave of immigrants to America, and so our security strategy can never be one of closed borders and high fences, but must be one of open borders and welcoming shores. While we must secure our nation and our people, we must also secure freedom and ensure that liberty thrives.

This week as we commemorate the signing of our Constitution, we celebrate the sacrifices of our Founders and the boldness of their vision for this country, an America that would always be a diverse nation, where all people, from all parts of the world, could come to a land where freedom transcends all else.

It is the President's intention, and that of the Department's, that this founding principle must and always will endure. Constitution Week is a time to reflect upon our character as a nation and the responsibilities we all share in preserving our freedoms.

We began this week’s celebrations last Friday with our Citizenship Day ceremonies, welcoming more than 20,000 new citizens in communities across our country. Naturalization ceremonies such as these serve as a reminder that citizenship in a democracy is much more than a title, it is a trust, a trust that those who accept the blessings of liberty are also willing to accept the sacrifices and responsibilities that go right along with it.

As we work to enhance our immigration services, we want to not only facilitate the process so that individuals feel welcome, we want to provide the necessary education and resources, so that our newest citizens can immediately begin to contribute and feel a part of our society. Now, more than ever, we have learned that those who would call themselves “free” must also accept the call to serve, because for this country to endure, we need an active citizenry.

So, with that in mind USCIS has put together an orientation guide for new immigrants that we are launching today.

This guide contains basic civic information such as how to participate in local government or become involved in the community, as well as practical information such as how to obtain a driver’s license, get a social security number, or open a bank account. This guide will be offered as a resource to new immigrants, so that their integration into American life can be a smooth and straightforward transition.
However, on a much larger scale, we want the entire immigration process from the moment of application to the acceptance of the citizenship oath to be a positive experience. That is why one of our seven key priorities this year at Homeland Security has been to improve immigration customer service and immigration practices, and this is a goal towards which we have made tremendous progress.

New initiatives such as InfoPass and other expanded online services are providing greater flexibility and convenience to the naturalization process. Before InfoPass, lines that wrapped around immigration offices were not an uncommon sight. Now, customers can go online to make an appointment instead of waiting in line.

In addition, allowing applicants to complete several of our most popular forms online through our E-filing initiative, is also making the process more user-friendly.

By the end of fiscal year 2006, E-Filing will include a total of 12 forms that will account for more than 90% of the applications for benefits filed yearly.

We have also made significant strides towards our goal of eliminating the immigration backlog. So far, we have completed 1.1 million more cases this year than we completed during the same period a year ago. And much of this progress has come not from hiring more people, but from improvements to the process made by CIS.

That hard work is paying important dividends and Director Aguirre’s backlog reduction plan is not only working, but is ahead of schedule. We fully expect to meet our goal of having the backlog down to zero by 2006. Eliminating the backlog is a huge undertaking, but it is a challenge that we are determined to embrace and see through to completion.

So, we will continue to build upon these efforts and the work of our backlog reduction pilot programs in order to get the job done once and for all. In the end, despite the changes we have made to secure our country since 9-11, we will not abdicate our character as a nation, not now, not ever. We will always remain a welcome and free country.

And, the measure of our success in doing so is not hard to take. It can be found in the constant increase of naturalization applications. It can be found in the more than half a million immigrants who became American citizens last year. And it can be found overseas among the brave men and women defending our freedom – more than 6000 of whom have become new citizens this year.

So while we have some real accomplishments to celebrate, we know that there is still room to improve and expand our immigration efforts. And, at Homeland Security we greatly appreciate your participation today to help us think through new and innovative ways we can better serve this key constituency.

Americans, as a people, are bound by so much more than just our commitment to democracy and our love of liberty. we are bound by a common heritage, each of us a descendant of immigrants and each of us a benefactor of the inheritance they fought and sacrificed to bestow.

It now falls to us to protect that inheritance. And regardless of whether you took the citizenship oath yesterday or were born on American soil , it is our shared duty to ensure that the inheritance we pass on to our children and grandchildren is as rich in security, liberty, peace, and welcome as the one we were given.

Thank you.

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