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June 2002

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


From California to the New York Islands, Federal Courts Celebrate Our Newest Citizens

On Unalaska Island in the Aleutian Chain, a federal judge has traveled 800 miles from Anchorage, Alaska to administer the Oath of Allegiance to a group of immigrants at Dutch Harbor. On the other side of the country, in Portland Maine, a class of 7th graders presents a special class project to a group of citizens in celebration of their new status as Americans. And in Brownsville, Texas, students proudly look on as their parents become citizens at naturalization ceremonies held at a local high school.

In 2001, well over 400,000 immigrants were administered the Oath of Allegiance to the United States by federal judges. Often, the oath is given in the ceremonial courtroom of the district court, but just as frequently, the venue can be a high school auditorium, historic sites such as Ellis Island in New York and Faneuil Hall in Boston, or, on occasion, a living room in a private home.

Judge Reynaldo G. Garza, now of the 5th Circuit, recalls that one of his first duties in 1961 as a district court judge was to administer the oath of allegiance to over 5,000 immigrants at the Music Center in Houston, Texas. Garza, a native of Brownsville, Texas, always enjoyed the naturalization ceremonies.

"To me it's something worth seeing," Garza said. "People have to think a lot of our country to give up their own citizenship. They have everything else, but they still want to change their citizenship." Judge Filemon Bartolome Vela (S.D. Tex.), who succeeded Garza when he was elevated to the 5th Circuit, continues his celebration of citizenship by holding ceremonies at six or seven different high schools around the district so that children can see their parents become citizens.

Most of the time the naturalization ceremonies in the Southern District of New York are sedate affairs. But when a court encompasses a theater district, some celebrations are going to be out of the ordinary. One judge in particular, Harold Baer, has provided a variety of entertainment, including Metropolitan Opera soprano Marvis Martin, and Metropolitan Opera bass Kevin Maynor, as well as folk singer Odetta Gordon who have sung patriotic songs for new citizens; actors Ron Silver and Geoffrey Holder who have read the Pledge of Allegiance and the Oath of Allegiance. The New York City Police Band has played. And just last year, in a ceremony over which he presided, participants heard the Children's Chorus Voices of Henry Street, conducted by Yvonne Hatchett of the Chicago Lyric Opera who also sang the National Anthem.

In Alaska, where naturalization ceremonies are held twice a year in Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, and Fairbanks, and monthly in Anchorage, Gail Moquin, Immigration and Naturalization contact for the district, helps pull out all the stops to celebrate. In Fairbanks, a cello player opens the ceremonies. In Anchorage, the Sweet Adelines sing and the Elks Club conducts a flag ceremony and passes out a flag to each new citizen. For over 30 years, the Anchorage Woman's Club has held a reception after the ceremony for the new citizens. The Daughters of the American Revolution also hand out cards of welcome and register new citizens to vote. A speaker to address the new Americans always is part of the program. "One guest speaker," Moquin recalled, "talked about Thomas Jefferson. She told about how he gathered seeds and plants from all over the world. She said `We are like that. We come here from all over the world and gather in the United States.'"

Fifty to 60 new citizens take the oath in Anchorage at each ceremony, sometimes representing two dozen countries. In Chicago, in the Northern District of Illinois, the court usually holds six ceremonies a week, twice a day, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Last year, over 30,000 new citizens raised their right hands and swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Chief Judge Marvin Aspen has managed to imbue these cer-emonies with significance. For the last two years, twice a week, 7th and 8th grade students from Chicago's public schools have come to observe and learn. "I started the program," said Aspen, "because I thought we ought to find a vehicle to bring students into court to familiarize them with the Third Branch of government and the Constitution. What better way to demonstrate that than the naturalization ceremony? The students can see what becoming a citizen really means." All the students who attend are in civics or American history classes. Members of the Chicago Bar Association, many of them immigration lawyers, volunteer to meet with students following the ceremony to answer any questions. Over 2,000 students have participated to date.

At a recent naturalization ceremony in Maine, 48 7th grade students from Sanford Junior High School celebrated "Our Great America," the theme of their American history study, by presenting each new citizen with a pine seedling in a red, white and blue pot. Chief Judge Brock Hornby has made a tradition out of celebrating these events, inviting speakers to address the group, or, as in recent ceremonies, asking a state judge to sing and a former District Attorney to play the piano. Representatives of the Mayflower Society, the DAR and the League of Women Voters also are there to pass out information. "It's one of a handful of things I do as a federal judge where everyone leaves the court happy," Hornby says. "People bring their kids and American flags. It has particular significance for me because I'm a naturalized citizen too, from Canada."

The Central District of California holds the distinction of annually administering more Oaths of Allegiance than any other district. Last year, over 98,000 new citizens took the oath in the district. For that reason, the naturalization ceremonies can be massive, averaging 3,500 participants plus their guests, and
the venues have included the L.A. Sports Arena and the Pomona Fairgrounds. This being Los Angeles, however, stars and other celebrities may merit more private ceremonies—otherwise the autograph seekers can be distracting. But at a typical ceremony, a district or mag-istrate judge administers the oath and speaks to the new citizens. Military personnel are seated up front and recognized. And a special effort is made to accommodate the public by making voter registration and passport applications available afterwards.

Judge Norma Shapiro, now a senior judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, always felt naturalization ceremonies were inspiring. "Watching immigrants take the oath of allegiance to their new country should make us value our citizenship," she said, "because they have worked so hard to get what we have by birth."

Shapiro required attorneys she admitted to the district court bar to attend a naturalization ceremony. "I felt it was important that they observe each other," she said. "The attorneys needed to see the immigrants swearing to uphold the Constitution. And the immigrants needed to see how important lawyers are to our system of law."

The district has held naturalization ceremonies at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and has saluted such patriotic events as Constitution Day and the 4th of July with ceremonies. Custom holds that at the ceremonies, the name of each new citizen is read aloud, and the judge and that day's guest speaker hand each new citizen a certificate with personal congratulations. It is done that way because, said Shapiro, "we're a country where the individual means so much."