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July 01, 2017

Naturalization Ceremonies: “It’s the Best Part of My Job”

By Judge Nanette A. Baker

As a federal judge, there is no activity more rewarding than presiding over a naturalization ceremony. On the day of the ceremony, people from dozens of different countries renounce their former citizenship and take the oath of allegiance to the United States. These ceremonies bring together families from dozens of places across the globe, and they are always joyful. In some parts of the country, hundreds of people are naturalized in a single ceremony. Ask any federal judge who presides over naturalization ceremonies, and they will tell you heartwarming stories about immigrants and their journey to become American citizens.

For some judges, the ceremonies are personal because they have been through the naturalization process themselves. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Joseph tells the participants about a man from Haiti who arrived in New York in January 1969 with about $3 in his pocket. He did not know the language but had the address of a friend who took him in. He had left his pregnant wife and eight children from 10 months to 12 years old behind in Haiti. In July 1969, the man’s wife arrived. As Judge Joseph explains, “Her pockets were empty, but her heart and mind were filled with hope for starting a new life for the children she left behind.” The couple worked very hard. They bought a house and eventually became citizens. The story Judge Joseph tells is the story of her parents. She tells the audience that she was the 10-month-old who was left behind when her parents came to the United States. Judge Joseph relates her own story because she feels it is important for new citizens to see the potential for their lives in this country.

In St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. Magistrate Judge Shirley Mensah relates her family’s journey. Judge Mensah was born in the West African nation of Liberia. But, as she tells the new citizens, her story actually began here in the United States. She says, “My maternal great-grandmother was born in Knightsdale, North Carolina, just 10 years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in this country. She attended Shaw University, where she met and married my great-grandfather, who was a descendent of British slaves. He immigrated to the United States from Jamaica to get an education. My great-grandparents were educators and missionaries who immigrated to Liberia to help establish a Baptist Mission in Brewerville, Liberia. Although my great-grandmother often returned to her home in North Carolina, several of her children, including my grandfather, were born in Liberia and remained there all their lives.” However, in 1980, there was a military coup in which the Liberian military took over the civilian government. Judge Mensah then describes how her grandfather, who had served in the government for decades, was arrested and never seen alive again; many friends and family members were rounded up; some were killed. She says, “My parents and sisters and I came to America seeking political asylum. Fortunately for us, we were granted asylum and eventually became naturalized citizens.”

Judge Mensah says she shares her story because, first, she wants these new citizens to know that America is now, and always has been, a land of opportunity. She tells them, “I can tell you, when I became a naturalized citizen, I never dreamed I’d be administering the oath of citizenship to new citizens like you. Just as my path to citizenship ended 25 years ago, today your journey toward American citizenship has come to an end; but your lives as citizens of the United States have only begun.” She adds, “The second thing I hope you take with you today is that with the rights and the benefits of American citizenship come the duties of citizenship. Our duties as citizens include mutual respect for other citizens under the law, support of and respect for our Constitution and laws, and respect for our government.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge Tu Pham in Memphis, Tennessee, was three years old when he came to the United States from Vietnam. Judge Pham tells his family’s story of escaping from Vietnam in the 1970s. Here’s what Judge Pham shares with the audiences at his naturalization ceremonies: “Just like all of you, I was not born in America. I was born in 1971 in a small farming village in the southern part of Vietnam. My father worked as a photographer and owned his own studio. My mother stayed at home to take care of the children. You can say that we lived the quiet, simple life. Unfortunately, our quiet life would not last long. You see, at the time, the country of Vietnam was at war. North Vietnam was trying to take control of South Vietnam and impose its communist form of government.”

Judge Pham continues, “By 1975, the communist troops gained control of the country. My family fled from our home and went from village to village looking for a place to sleep. If no one would let us in, we would sleep on the streets. Eventually, we reached the southern coast of Vietnam, got on a small fishing boat with hundreds of other refugees, and drifted out to the South China Sea. We did not know where we were going or what would happen to us. We had no food, we had no money, and we had no idea of whether we would even live to see the next day.”

He then shares how his family was rescued, “Luckily, a ship passing by saw us and took us on board. We were taken to a refugee camp in the Philippines, and after being moved to different cities and camps, we finally arrived in America. When we arrived, my father was able to find a job as a photographer, even though he could not speak English. The children were able to attend school, even though we had no money. We came to America with absolutely nothing to offer it, yet this country took us in, gave us food and shelter, and, most importantly, gave us a second chance in life.”

Judge Pham’s family made the most of this second chance. “My parents were able to send all seven of their children to college. My oldest sister studied journalism, became a television news reporter, and won an Emmy award for her work. My brothers studied engineering and business and became successful businessmen. My other sisters have careers in hospitality, nursing, and pharmacy. And as for me, I was given the chance to go to law school, became a lawyer, and, today, I am a judge for the United States of America.”

He concludes, “So when I hear people use words to describe this country—words like ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ and ‘opportunity’—those words to me are more than just abstract ideas or beliefs. As Americans, my family has lived a life of freedom, of rights, and of opportunity—and we know how dangerously close we came to losing all of that. I am here today to tell you that the American dream is alive and well. I am truly grateful to this country, and I am so proud to be an American.”

There are more than 20 million naturalized citizens in the United States. In fiscal year 2015 alone, more than 730,000 immigrants were naturalized in the United States. The busiest region of the country is the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania area, which had more than 113,000 people naturalized in FY 2015. The next busiest region is the Los Angeles area with nearly 70,000, followed by the Miami area with 53,000.

Some of the largest naturalization ceremonies take place on the East Coast, and Boston, Massachusetts, is no exception. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Frank J. Bailey holds naturalization ceremonies there. His ceremonies have included as many as 500 new citizens at one time at Faneuil Hall and the Lowell Auditorium. Among the most unique locations for naturalization ceremonies have been on the deck of the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), the oldest commissioned warship in the U.S. Navy, and on Salem, Massachusetts, Harbor at the site of the House of the Seven Gables (of author Nathaniel Hawthorne fame).

Judge Bailey’s most memorable naturalization ceremony occurred on Constitution Day in 2012. He states, “Lawrence, Massachusetts, is a very diverse community. There was a mayor at the time that was facing public corruption charges. As soon as we were done with the naturalization ceremony, the newly sworn citizens walked en masse to the city hall across the Common, where they registered to vote in the upcoming primary election.” He adds, “It was a powerful sight to see. And the mayor lost the primary about a week later.”

In New York, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Stong also presides over very large naturalization ceremonies. She says, “One of the hardest things I do as a judge is lead 200 or more new citizens in singing our wonderful, but challenging, national anthem. It inevitably brings tears to my eyes to see the 200 newest citizens of the United States, from 20 or more countries and sometimes in their national dress, singing and smiling broadly as they do so. As the high note approaches, the key is not to think about it—and just to hit the note, full voice, as best you can. I think about the fact that if they can travel the long road that they have taken from their home country to their new country, then the least I can do is sing out in their honor!”

Judge Stong continues, “One of the best ways to celebrate our newest citizens is to share this moment with young people, including students from the community. So, for many years, children—from kindergarten to middle school—have joined me for a naturalization ceremony. They sit on the large bench in our district’s beautiful ceremonial courtroom, and they participate in the ceremony, too, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance when we begin, singing the national anthem, and sometimes reciting portions of the oath of citizenship. Because this is New York City, many of the students have wonderful family stories about their own naturalization or that of their parents or friends. Sometimes their teachers do, too. They often write me notes afterward, and sometimes they reassure me that my singing isn’t all that bad after all. It’s pretty profound to participate in something like this, and both the students and their parents have also reached out afterward, sometimes years after the fact, to say how moved they were by the experience.”

In smaller locations, the ceremonies are just as special. U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt says the Fourth of July ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa, is held at a minor league baseball park. Each new citizen and his or her family members receive tickets for the game from the Iowa Cubs owner. In addition, Judge Pratt does a ceremony every year at the Jordan House, an underground railroad site, and a place were the abolitionist John Brown stayed while leading a group of slaves to freedom. Many ceremonies are held at historically significant sites because it gives judges an opportunity to provide historical context for the occassion.

In St. Louis, Missouri, where I preside, on the Fourth of July, we hold a special ceremony at the historic Old Courthouse downtown, which was the site of the two trials where Dred Scott and his wife, who were slaves, sued for their freedom in 1847 and 1850, and where suffragist Virginia Minor sued for the right to vote in 1872. Both cases were ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against the Scotts and Minor. In addition to the special Independence Day ceremony, we hold naturalization ceremonies twice a month and usually have 40–50 individuals from more than 20 countries at a given ceremony. Because our ceremonies are relatively small, like many other judges, I get to hand out the certificates to each new citizen and pose for photographs.

The District of Minnesota does naturalization ceremonies regularly throughout the year. U.S. Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois presides over naturalization ceremonies two to three times a year in Duluth and Fergus Falls. He says, “These ceremonies are very intimate in that the number of participating new citizens typically ranges between the mid-teens and the mid-20s. In Duluth, the local Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts sometimes present the colors and gain civics exposure, and the Duluth chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution participates by handing out little American flags and providing a small cookies/coffee reception following the ceremony. In both Duluth and Fergus Falls, the local chapters of the League of Women Voters provide voter registration information to the participating new citizens prior to the ceremonies.” Judge Brisbois adds, “I stay around as long as necessary so that anyone, and their friends and family, who wants to take pictures with the judge who made them a U.S. citizen can do so.”

For foreign citizens, the naturalization ceremony is the end of a very long process. To be eligible for naturalization, the immigrant must

  • Be 18 or older at the time of filing and have lawful permanent residence status (also known as a green card) for at least five years immediately preceding the date of filing the Form N-400, Application for Naturalization;
  • Have lived within the state or district with jurisdiction over the applicant’s place of residence for at least three months before the date of filing the application (students may apply for naturalization either where they go to school or where their family lives if they are still financially dependent on their parents);
  • Be physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the five years immediately preceding the date of filing the application;
  • Reside continuously within the United States from the date of application for naturalization up to the time of naturalization;
  • Be able to read, write, and speak English and have knowledge and an understanding of U.S. history and government (civics); and
  • Be a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well-disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States during all relevant periods under the law.

Whether you are a newly naturalized citizen, or a person whose family has been in the United States for generations, it is impossible not to be moved by the stories of families who against all odds have made it to the shores of this country. Once here, these individuals acquired a green card; they worked, attended school, paid taxes, and did everything required of them under the law. Many of the new citizens I meet have been in the United States for decades. It is not an easy decision to renounce their former citizenship.

As Judge Mensah reminds the newly minted citizens, “Although this is not a perfect nation, I believe it was founded on perfect ideals. Those ideals promise that equality and justice will be delivered by a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Remember that countless Americans died to ensure that every citizen—naturalized or otherwise—would be free to exercise their rights and to ensure that the rights of every citizen would be entitled to equal protection under the law. America’s promises of freedom and democracy can never be fulfilled without the persistent, ongoing, active participation of each of its citizens—that now includes all of you.”

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