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What is an American?

There are several useful videos from the USCIS – one of which is the following. It’s about 12 minutes long, and is voiced over by the guy that does the movie trailers. If you’re like me, and don’t have the patience to watch a video, but can skim read about five times as fast, you might want to read the transcription below. It’s not my intention to infringe any copyright – just to make it quick and easy to digest so that you are better prepared for your US immigration test.

I can’t stand dry facts, and the video does a good job of telling a story. Let me know what you think in the comments!

What makes us Americans? And what makes people from all over the world want to become U.S. citizens? The U.S. Constitution, a four-page document written more than 200 years ago, is part of the reason.

We the People… These are the first words of the United States Constitution, a document that defines the structure of the U.S. government, and is the foundation for the freedoms and responsibilities of U.S. citizens. In the United States, a country with people of many different backgrounds, the principles of our Constitution unite all of us as a nation.

300 years ago… the early 1700s… Although Native Americans had lived in this land for centuries, the European settlers who came here called this the New World. These early settlers were drawn here for many of the same reasons that immigrants come here today.

These people formed 13 colonies, ruled by Great Britain. At first, Britain allowed these colonists to govern themselves in many ways. Later, Britain made many demands on the colonists, including taxing them without their consent. As the colonists established their lives and built communities here, it became more and more important to them to be able to govern themselves.

In 1776, representatives from the colonies issued a Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of this document and later became the third President of the United States. The Declaration of Independence announced that the colonies were free and independent states – no longer under British rule. It stated that all men are created equal and are born with the natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Over time, the idea of equal rights included all people in the United States. Of the 56 men who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, 8 were foreign-born. They were immigrants, like many people in the United States today. The colonists pledged everything they owned… they pledged their honor… and even their lives in order to win independence from Britain. To free themselves from British rule, colonists had to fight the most powerful army in the world. The American Revolutionary War was a hard, brutal struggle with ongoing battles for 8 violent years.

George Washington commanded the colonists’ army, later becoming the first President of the United States. Out of this hard-fought war, a young country was born. But there were problems. The Revolution had produced 13 independent states held together by a treaty called the Articles of Confederation. The 13 states were not a unified country yet. They needed a stronger agreement to tie them together and to ensure the survival of this country.

To find a solution to this problem, a Convention was called in 1787, and delegates from the new, independent American states met in Philadelphia. The delegates were passionate about protecting the idea that here no one is born a ruler. They felt power must come from the people. The challenge facing the delegates was complex – they wanted to create a government strong enough to hold the entire country together, but limited enough that the rights of the states and the individual freedoms of the citizens could be protected.

After three-and-a-half months of intense debate, the delegates created a plan a Constitution that defined a completely new kind of government. First, they put aside the idea that there would be a single, final, authority: a king or an emperor, for example. Instead, they divided power between the states and a new national government, whose powers would be specific and limited.

Then, within the national government, the delegates further divided power into 3 branches Congress, the Presidency, and the Judiciary. Each of these would have its own role, but none would have total control. This is what no country had ever done – control power by dividing it, putting it under the limits of a written constitution, and then placing the final authority with the people, who govern themselves through elected representatives. The power and responsibility for freedom belong to us  the citizens of the United States – We the People.

The Constitution is a document as relevant today as the day it was signed. Over the years, the Constitution has changed through what are called amendments. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. Those amendments establish some very basic rights of citizens: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, right to a fair trial, right to bear arms, and other important liberties. For more than 200 years, the U.S. Constitution has had daily impact on the lives of citizens, and over time its promise of freedom has included more and more people.

Many groups of people were denied certain freedoms in the past, but have gained equality through amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It took 75 years and a Civil War to end slavery. And it was another 100 years until laws were passed to make it illegal to discriminate against people based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

In 1965 the Voting Rights Act made sure that every U.S. citizen would be allowed to vote. At the same time the United States removed many unfair restrictions on immigration. This allowed legal immigrants from all over the world to come to America, and make this country their home. From early settlers to today’s immigrants, the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution have drawn many people to this country.

With each person who joins the nation, We the People become stronger. Together, we have built a free nation. We have been able to imagine, invent and live our lives as we choose. We have been free to dream and make those dreams become real. All the while, we continue to debate as the delegates did the challenges that face a free nation. The Constitution protects our many freedoms. It also allows each person to decide how to use these freedoms.

Whether you are a new immigrant or ready to apply for citizenship, freedoms and rights come with important responsibilities: make a commitment to be part of your community; get to know and help your neighbors, discuss the issues that affect your community; learn English, learn about U.S. history and government; and respect the law. If you become a U.S. citizen, serve on a jury if you are called to do so… and vote. The right to vote allows each citizen to help the nation remain strong and grow. Voting allows all of us to have a voice in how our lives and communities are built, and how they change over time. Voting is an important part of U.S. citizens’ responsibilities.

What makes us U.S. citizens? What makes us a nation? Why did you come to this land? Each of these questions reaches far into our shared history, to the birth of the United States and to the document that protects and ensures our freedoms the U.S. Constitution. And it begins with three words: We the People. Through these words and the guarantees of the Constitution, we are a nation of free men and women. Men and women united by a shared history and the common civic values that make us all Americans. Now it is your decision… What will you do with freedom?