Most Americans receive the gift of United States citizenship the moment they enter the world, as a bonus for being fortunate enough to have been born within certain man-made boundaries. They don't have to earn it; they need not endure hardship to acquire it and no preparation is necessary to make sure they deserve it. As a result, many of us take its preciousness for granted, and are perplexed when others are willing to make such sacrifices to attain it.

Despite recent political developments, the concept of "America" still holds an almost talismanic significance to peoples who have struggled under repressive governments or lack hope for bettering themselves under their current systems. This is why they often risk their lives to thrive in a land where individual freedoms are enshrined in its bedrock document and where limitless opportunity awaits those with the desire to succeed.

Last Friday at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, 23 immigrants became proud American citizens, representing the culmination of their dreams and confirming their assimilation into what they, like most of us who were born here, still believe is an exceptional nation in the eyes of history and the world. (Eagle, August 11).

The citizenship that many of us take as our birthright is not easily won; there are interviews and legal labyrinths to navigate — a process so complicated that an nonprofit agency, the Berkshire Immigrant Center, exists for the purpose of guiding aspirants — many of whom struggle with English — through the bureaucratic thickets. Then there is the qualification test, an examination designed to ensure that citizenship only be granted to those who possess an adequate understanding the "meaning" of America, its history and their role in exercising the self-government that has characterized this nation from its inception. It would be a safe bet to assume that a goodly number of natural-born Americans would fail that challenging citizenship exam.

Of one thing we can be sure: These 23 new Americans, having worked so hard to prepare for last Saturday's moment, will never take their responsibilities lightly; in fact, they are likely to make the best kind of informed, involved citizens. At a time when growing sentiment, whipped up by demagoguery, has been running against the acceptance of newcomers to our shores, we should celebrate that our national community continues to be strengthened by those willing to sacrifice to be a part of it. For them, civic responsibility is a hard-won privilege, not a burden.

One of the newly-minted Americans at the Stockbridge ceremony was a former Salvadoran woman who told The Eagle that she and her husband had left their native country in order to provide a better life for their daughters. All six family members are now citizens, and two of the daughters are accountants, one is a registered nurse and the other is a computer engineer. If they had arrived on our shores a few weeks ago the girls could have ended up in cages while their frantic parents fought in court to stay in America and try to find them.

Now that they are full-fledged Americans, it is our profound hope that they will play a role in setting our nation — their nation — on the right track once again