This semester I have been interning with a judge downtown, and today I got to see a naturalization ceremony where 250 people became American citizens. They were sitting in a massive room in the courthouse, people of all ages and from all over the place, many of them dressed in their best. The largest contingents were from the DR and China, but there were people from Armenia, Malawi, France, etc, and even, thanks apparently to the benefit of time travel, the USSR. A couple Iranians and Syrians, but no Iraqis (good luck, you guys! As you stand up, we'll stand down! So try to stand up without being blown to bits!). Anyways, I digress: today all of those people became Americans.
First, a clerk made everyone stand and repeat an oath of citizenship, which required people to serve the country, if necessary, to pick up arms in defense, and to pay taxes. This seemed much more stringent than what we require of native-born citizens, but that was fine. It was amusing to note that many of our newest citizens still have no grasp of the English language, though -- when asked to repeat after the clerk, a lot of people moved their mouths and looked around without making any sound. Or maybe they were just deaf new citizens, I don't know.
Then we all said the Pledge of Allegiance, which was refreshing. Then the judge (dare I say it, my judge) gave a speech where he talked about how America is the greatest country in the history of the world, and now everyone in the room is an equal, with the same rights and freedoms. We are all immigrants, from some other place, and no one has any standing over anyone else. Your citizenship, which is ten minutes' old, is good and solid and equivalent to that of a federal jduge, like him. With this freedom comes responsibilities: honoring our fellow citizens, respecting them, voting in elections, paying taxes. This is a happy day, one of the most important days of your life, and you should go celebrate with your loved ones after you leave here, because this is a wonderful occasion. You are a citizen of the United States of America. It was really a great, beautiful speech, which I utterly failed to recapture here. I wanted to copy it when we returned, but that would have been strange.
Afterwards, like graduation, they read everyone's name, and the people walked or strided or hobbled up and received their certificate and a handshake with the judge. Family members would occasionally clap. I sat there with a big smile on my face the whole time, watching people as they looked at their names and photos on the certificate, or made fleeting eye contact with the judge as they shook his hand and then left. The US Marshals were congratulating people too and clapping them on the back. A few people even made eye contact with me, and I would give the ol' smile-and-nod, American to American.
As we left I thought about how April 20, 2007 would be a memorable day for so many people. I thought of the risk and strength and courage it would take to leave your home, either willingly or under duress, and seek a new home and a new identity elsewhere. I am very fortunate to have never faced those trials, and now there are 250 more people in this great city with the same rights and freedoms as me, despite whatever differences of culture or language may exist between us. In that room was such a sense of unity and pride, only amplified by the complete heterogenity of the assembly. All of us are sheltered in the arms of this great country.