Yesterday I attended my first naturalization ceremony. My grandmother's housekeeper Viviana, an Argentinian, was successful in her application for citizenship, and she invited my grandmother and two aunts to the swearing in ceremony in downtown Philadelphia. She has worked for my grandmother for the past few years, cleaning her apartment, changing beds, providing moral and physical support for the bigger organization projects. While working at one aunt's house three or four years ago, she met Brian, a carpenter, and they are now married.
Aunt J drove us to the ceremony at 1600 Callowhill St, a large brick building that houses the Philadelphia Field Office of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS. After a 15-minute wait outside in a long line of aspiring US citizens, we were let into the warm lobby and passed through metal detectors. Aunt J shakes her head at that security measure; my grandmother says she appreciates it if it can keep us safer. We take an elevator up to the fourth floor and sit down in a medium sized room whose deep green walls are adorned with pictures of famous Philadelphia landmarks. At the front of the room is a built-in wooden podium and desk with a Department of Homeland Security seal hanging on the wall. Viviana’s husband Brian sits near us, and Viviana sits near the front with all of the other soon-to-be citizens. The room is nearly full, and the applicants are mostly dressed in business casual: slacks, sweaters, skirts, cardigans, sports jackets; some wear jeans and sweatshirts. The crowd is racially mixed, as emphasized later by the myriad countries around the world from which the immigrants have come. Africans, Asians, Central and South Americans, Northern Europeans, and a couple of Middle Easterners were in attendance. From the conversations I overhear, I gather that some of the applicants for citizenship have American wives, husbands, and/or children.
After about 20 minutes, the Philadelphia field office program leader kicks off the ceremony. He is a middle aged man with glasses and short brown hair; his manner is friendly and respectful. He begins by listing more than 30 countries from which the 73 new citizens come. Argentina, Belize, Canada, and on and on. As he lists each one, the citizens native to that country stand up. Then he asks the applicants to recite the oath of allegiance to the United States. Probably written long ago, the oath starts off by requiring new citizens to renounce their allegiance to any other prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty. I realize in that moment what a huge step it is to become a new citizen in another country. The idea of definitively cutting ties to ones natal country seems impossible, and yet that’s what we require of new US citizens. How many people, I wonder, can fully renounce the country of their birth and family, and no longer feel some loyalty or allegiance to it?
The program leader now addresses these new citizens, and thanks them for coming to the United States: “Whatever your reasons for coming, the United States is better for your presence,” he says. He also reminds them that with opportunity comes obligation, and he encourages them to participate in the American political process by voting. He concludes by quoting another naturalized citizen who stated that the day he arrived in the United States became more important to him than his own birthday. “Each of you can now add today’s date to your calendar of life,” the program leader says. Another USCIS officer turns on a video message from President Obama that conveys many of the same ideas as the program leader’s speech. “Together, we are a nation united not by any culture or ethnicity…” and “in America, no dream is impossible...” At the end of the video, a montage of American scenes rolls by, accompanied by a rousing version of “Proud to Be an American.”
Now the program leader announces that he will dispense certificates of naturalization to the new citizens. The other officer calls out names, and the program leader hands out certificates to each applicant. Family members move to the front of the room with new citizens to take pictures of the certificate hand-off.
At the end of the ceremony, the room fills with animated conversations, and we move to join Viviana near the front of the room. She seems happy and contented, but she’s not the sort of person to be effusive about it. She and Brian are going out for lunch at a nice restaurant downtown to celebrate.
Later, I go online to see what the oral citizenship test entails. Questions generated by the USCIS website to quiz applicants range from incredibly general (What is the economic system in the United States? “Communist economy,” “Capitalist economy,” “Socialist economy,” or “None of the above”) to specific (When must all men register for the selective service? “At any age,” “Between 18 and 26,” “At 16,” or “Men don’t have to register”). They don’t seem unreasonably difficult, but there are 100 possible questions, 10 of which would be asked during the test, and 6 of which have to be answered correctly in order for the applicant to pass. In addition to memorizing a whole lot of information about the US government, much of which people born here don’t know, applicants have to show proficiency in English. That, for many people, is the biggest hurdle. Again I think about how very small this group of new citizens is, in comparison to the vast numbers of immigrants who struggle to gain citizenship here. But for Viviana and those 72 others in the room at 1600 Callowhill Street, the struggle is over.