Nearly 9 million people hold a “green card” that lets them reside permanently in the U.S. Each and every one of them can become an American citizen. And President Obama is encouraging them to do so.

All new citizens, no matter their racial or ethnic roots, how wealthy they are, or how far back their families have been in the U.S., enjoy all the rights and freedoms, privileges and responsibilities of their fellow citizens. That means the right to vote, the right to free speech, and the right, most fundamentally, to enjoy what the U.S. Declaration of Independence calls “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

New citizens are crucial to America’s continued social vitality and economic growth. The year ending September 30, 2014, saw more than 650,000 newly naturalized American citizens. Perhaps one of them will become secretary of state, like Henry Kissinger (originally from Germany) or Madeleine Albright (formerly of Czechoslovakia).

For Abraham Lincoln, U.S. citizenship was based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, not on any ethnic or religious identity. (White House)

America’s growing diversity is a point of pride. At one time, most new citizens arrived from northern or western Europe. Today more than 4 million Hispanics are eligible for citizenship, as are 1.4 million potential citizens of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.

Americans welcome new citizens from every corner of the globe because U.S. citizenship is not a matter of race or creed or wealth. When Congress, back in 1790, set the first national standard for naturalized citizenship, it required no ethnic or religious test, no literacy test, no property requirement.

And so it remains.

On September 17, the official presiding over the swearing-in ceremony for a group of the newest Americans said simply, “This morning, when you came into this room, you were citizens of China, Mexico, Iraq, and Ethiopia … but now you are all citizens of a new country, the USA. Welcome to our family.”