I was excited to become a US citizen. That quickly dissipated during the ceremony, which felt like a middle school graduation
Last week I went from being a person subject to suspicion, retinal photographing, fingerprinting, and interviewing, whenever I entered the US to someone who was welcomed. I am a white, British, professional, employed by the federal government, who has lived in the US on various visas for 26 years. My relief was probably nothing compared with what it would have been if I had darker skin, an Arabic name, or marginal employment.
My US citizenship application was approved, and I was ready to be “naturalized” (having previously been unnatural?). The ceremony started late. We were welcomed by a motherly woman who said she normally worked in passports, and asked if we had seen two federal agents with a briefcase who were carrying our naturalization certificates. Somehow this was not reassuring. She told us of the traditions of her Polish grandmother, and urged us not to abandon the traditions of our native countries. She exhorted us to volunteer in our communities, as if all of us had been loath to take part in the church bake sale for fear of being rejected because we weren’t American citizens.
The judge came in and we stood up. We sat down. We stood up as two men in military dress holding the American and county flags came in. We sat down. We stood up for something else, and sat down again. People were milling about.
This whole procedure seemed unlike any official proceeding and more like a middle school graduation ceremony. This impression was enhanced by the program – eight pieces of paper stapled at the top corner, which proclaimed “Congratulations to our newest citizens!!” along with the obligatory images of the Statue of Liberty and the American flag.
After we had signed our certificates (the men with the briefcase having finally shown up), we raised our right hands to recite the oath of allegiance. This involved promising to “entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty”, and to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law”, and sneakily covered the possibility that one might recite these words without the desired intent by adding that “I take this obligation freely and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion so help me God”.
This bizarrely archaic piece of ceremony seemed to bear no relationship to reality, and to leave no room for freedom of religion, freedom of speech for those who opposed war, or loyalty to the country of our birth, whether legal or emotional. We pledged allegiance to the American flag, which apparently stands for “liberty and justice for all”, trying not to think of those many citizens and other human beings who had been arbitrarily deprived of these in this country. Paranoid that there might be hidden cameras watching us, I reluctantly mouthed the words with my fingers crossed in my pocket.
Various local officials were introduced. It was unclear who they were, why they were there, or why any of us should care. A young man in a rumpled suit gave a speech, telling us with pride that he had received an undergraduate degree in political science from a local branch of the state college, and then recounting a long story involving fleas and barracudas. The point of this parable was not clear, but involved a comparison of us in our pre-citizen, untamed state, with these creatures.
He was followed by a woman whose son had died from lack of an organ transplant. This was sad, but the relevance to our new citizenship was unclear. Were our organs only acceptable for transplantation now that they were blessed as American?
The highlight of the ceremony was a song, “My grandfather’s emigrant eyes”. We learned that this was usually sung by Sister Mary Murphy, who unfortunately was teaching that day, so we had to make do with a recording on a boombox instead. Her soaring voice recounted how she saw – in the aforementioned, now aged, emigrant eyes – “a young man confused and alone/Determined and bound for America” arriving at “Old Ellis Island”. While Sister Mary Murphy singing in the flesh might have been touching, the recording did not have quite the same effect, although I think my neighbour was dabbing her eyes by the end of the song.
Finally, each new citizen was called up to receive their certificate, to shake hands with the 10 earnest officials, all of whom looked everyone in the eye and said “well done” or “good job”, and to receive a small American flag from a representative of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Clutching these cheap flags and our precious certificates of naturalization we filed back to our seats, or fled the room. In the corridor was a table with small plastic cups of what appeared to be urine, but was more likely apple juice, and a cardboard display of American symbols and the flags of many other countries. This seemed to be intended as a backdrop for photographs of the happy new US citizens, although it would have been more appropriate for a grade school educational presentation.
Any sentiment I might have had about finally being a citizen, with the right to vote, access to benefits, and the ability to cross the border without suspicion, had been vapourised by the condescending tone of the whole event. My partner and I left the courthouse as fast as we could without arousing the suspicion that we had set a time bomb, and set off for the nearest bar.