So Proudly We Hail? Not Really

Becoming an American is a sacred moment for millions of immigrants. So why was my husband's citizenship ceremony such a sad, sorry affair?

By Jennifer Gill

There are plenty of people who want to get to America. Most of the time, we read about them when something goes horribly wrong on their journey here. You know the storylines: A rickety boat capsizes on its way from Cuba, drowning everyone on board. Dozens of Asian immigrants suffocate inside a shipping container that was supposed to bring them to the Land of Opportunity. It's all bad news -- tragic stories of people whose hopes for a better life in America were dashed in an instant.

I thought I would find some good news at the recent citizenship ceremony for my husband, Paul. He's of Indian descent, although born and raised in England. The people at this event had made it -- they had left their homelands, perhaps leaving loved ones and risking their lives to do so, and were now attaining what they had long sought: U.S. citizenship. Countless people around the world would kill to trade places with them. I thought I would see immigrants celebrating their happy ending with friends and family, waving American flags, and smiling for pictures.


  Paul, meanwhile, saw the swearing-in ceremony as just another hoop to jump through for the Immigration & Naturalization Service. In part, I couldn't blame him. He applied for citizenship back in the winter of 2000, ponying up his $250 nonrefundable fee. He took time off from work to get fingerprinted at the local police precinct, and then waited more than a year for his interview with an INS official. He used up another vacation day to appear at the appointed time, only to sit for four hours in the waiting room. His interview lasted five minutes and then he was sent home. A couple of weeks later, he got his invitation to the ceremony, which meant finagling more time off from work.

I thought Paul's ambivalence might fade once we got to the ceremony at the Brooklyn courthouse and were surrounded by excited citizens-to-be. Turns out, nearly all of the 270 people taking the oath that day seemed to share Paul's let's-get-this-over-with attitude. Few participants had bothered to bring along family. Perhaps they knew what we didn't: The ceremony was as painstakingly slow as everything leading up to it. It took four hours for INS officials to check each immigrant's papers, confiscate their green cards, and have them sign citizenship certificates.

When all that was finished, a judge breezed in to preside over the oath-taking. A few people mumbled the oath, but most couldn't keep up with the INS agent who was reciting it at a fast clip. The whole ceremony felt as perfunctory as a trip to the department of motor vehicles to renew your license. No one played the Star-Spangled Banner when it was over, or handed out mini American flags to the newly minted citizens. There wasn't even a tape-recorded message from President Bush congratulating his fellow Americans. The judge said a few words about the importance of voting, but no one discussed the other duties and privileges of being a U.S. citizen.


  Maybe that was just as well, since nearly all of the new Americans were eyeing the exit by this point. They had jobs to get to, children to care for, errands to run. As we rushed out of the courtroom, my husband turned to me and grumbled, "They could have done this by mail."

He was a right. Why bother to have a ceremony if there's nothing meaningful about it? I've seen more patriotism during the playing of the National Anthem at a baseball game. I decided to call the INS public affairs office to find out if Paul and I had witnessed a typical ceremony. They referred me to the Immigration and Nationality Act, which says that the naturalization ceremony must be in "keeping with the dignity of the occasion."

That broad statement leaves too much room for interpretation. Just compare my husband's so-called ceremony to that of my colleague's mother, who became a citizen recently in San Francisco. Her ceremony, attended by 1,600 immigrants, included a moving speech by a Mexican-born local TV news anchor who recounted her story about becoming a U.S. citizen. Even the judge presiding over the event told his tale about coming to America from Germany when he was four years old. The National Anthem was played after the pledge of allegiance, and participants gathered with their families to snap pictures near the flag.


  Hearing about the ceremony in San Francisco left me and Paul feeling deprived. The INS needs to set some standards so that all new citizens get the same reception, regardless of where their ceremony is. Have someone talk about the rights and obligations that come with being an American, for instance. Maybe even get a naturalized citizen to share their own story. At the very least, play a tape-recorded version of the National Anthem.

In his July 10 remarks during a televised citizenship ceremony on Ellis Island, President Bush described the act of becoming an American a defining event in an immigrant's life. It's a shame that so little thought appears to be given to the ceremony that marks that milestone and welcomes the lucky few who make it here. They deserve better.

Gill is the Careers Channel editor for BusinessWeek Online

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