I recently had the opportunity to watch sixty-five people from thirty-eight countries transform into full fledged citizens of the Unites States of America in a matter of seconds. It was one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve ever had with an aura of accomplishment and hope at least the equal of a high school or college graduation. One of those sixty-five people was a friend. He had invited me to attend and I expected to be quite happy for him. I did not expect to be affected one way or another by the others but I was wrong. It was, in fact, the group, rather than the individuals, that generated most of that uplift I mentioned.
A couple of people spoke informally, almost causally, to the not-quite-yet-Americans. Small US flags were distributed. A representative from the board of elections passed out registration forms and explained how to fill them out. The forms could be filled, she told the group, but not signed until they were US Citizens. It wouldn’t be long.
With the judge’s entry, things had become a bit more formal but no more somber. Judge Stephanie Bowman and other officials went through some scripted exchanges to establish the eligibility of those present for citizenship. Then the uplifting began. Each applicant stood and announced their name and nation of birth. Some voices were loud and firm; Others softer and maybe a little timid. Some spoke as if English was the only language they had ever known and in many cases that was true. Others spoke with heavy accents that would have made the name they spoke hard to understand even if the name was a familiar one which it often was not. With each unfamiliar name spoken by a foreign sounding voice, the ethnic diversity of the group became more and more apparent and the idea of a melting pot became more and more vivid with the saying of the names of each of those thirty-eight countries. Some, like Togo, Sri Lanka, and Morocco, sounded pretty exotic to me. Others, Canada and Mexico, identified neighbors merely a border away. All were reminders that lots of people from lots of places believe that United States citizenship is highly desirable and worth more than a little effort to obtain.
The day’s only truly solemn occasion followed. The Oath of Allegiance marks the magic moment when those not born a US citizen become one. It combines a promise to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America” with the renouncing of any and all previously held allegiance. It’s nothing to be taken lightly and no one did as those sixty-five voices recited it in unison. Then the new Americans and everyone else in the room recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
The official bits were over. One at a time, the newly minted citizens went to the front of the room to get their certificate and maybe take a few pictures with the judge. My friend Clyde was among the last to go up and used the time to sign his voter registration. He would hand it to the lady from the board of elections on the way out. I don’t know for a fact that everyone did the same but I have the impression that they did. I believe that the USA got sixty-five new active voters that day.
Clyde had almost missed the big day. There is one naturalization ceremony per month in Cincinnati. On the day he passed his citizen ship test, Clyde had been told that the April ceremony was full and he would be scheduled for the one in May. He came home on Thursday and collected the day’s mail. It was tossed on a table with the intention of dealing with it in the morning. On the way to bed about 11:00, Clyde decided to open that one official looking envelope. In it was a letter telling him that he’d made the April group after all. He needed to be downtown at the federal courthouse by 8:30 the next morning. He obviously made it but that’s cutting it a little close.