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Judges Bring History to Naturalization Ceremonies
At Fort Drum in upstate New York, thirty miles from the Canadian border, a group of U.S. Army infantry soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division raise their right hands before Magistrate Judge George Lowe (N.D. NY), ready to become the newest citizens of the United States. They are thousands of miles from the countries of their births—India, the Philippines, Poland, Guyana, Mexico, Haiti, and Ethiopia. Today, they’ll become U.S. citizens. Tomorrow or next week, they will be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Their division holds the distinction of being the most deployed division in the Army.
“The Oath of Allegiance that the soldiers take, as do all candidates for citizenship,” said Lowe, “includes commitments to ‘support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic’ and ‘to bear arms on behalf of the United States.’ To civilians, these might merely be words. But for these soldiers, the words are the immediate reality. What a wonderful testament by these courageous young men and women.”
In the Central District of Illinois, Judge Jeanne E. Scott is standing in the very spot where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous “A House Divided” speech in Springfield’s Old State Capitol building. In the Hall of Representatives where she presides over a naturalization ceremony, a portrait of George Washington looks down on the proceedings as it did in Lincoln’s day. The Sangamon County Bar Association Lawyers Chorus will soon sing a medley of patriotic songs. A U.S. Congressman will speak and, later, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) will pass out miniature flags, cookies and punch. But right now, Clerk of Court Pam Robinson is administering the oath of allegiance to nearly 100 candidates for citizenship, including several generations within families.
Last year, 450,275 people became naturalized citizens in federal court ceremonies; five years ago the total was 341,829; over the last decade the annual total has averaged over 400,000. Sometimes it’s just one individual standing before a judge, occasionally it is thousands taking the oath. The Central District of California frequently holds ceremonies at the L.A. Sports Arena and the Pomona Fairgrounds in order to accommodate all the people wishing to become citizens. In March, they administered the oath to 11,650 new citizens.
The federal courts and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) share authority to naturalize new citizens. Under the Immigration Act of 1990, aliens file their applications for citizenship with the USCIS, and upon approval of citizenship, may have the oath of citizenship administered by either the USCIS or in a federal court. Under the Judicial Naturalization Ceremonies Amendments of Pub.L. 102-232, effective January 11, 1992, federal courts electing to conduct oath-taking ceremonies have exclusive authority to administer the oath of allegiance for a period of 45 days. The period begins on the date that the Attorney General certifies to the district court that an applicant for naturalization, who is a resident in the district, has been approved for citizenship and is eligible for naturalization oath-taking.
“We don’t have to perform these ceremonies,” said Clerk of Court Jim McCormack in the Eastern District of Arkansas, “but our judges are adamant that the ceremonies be performed in the courthouse. And you’d think after 15 years of ceremonies it would be perfunctory, but the people here never let that happen. This is one of the few times we come to the courthouse and everyone leaves happy.”
“A good deal of effort is indeed put into making naturalization ceremonies meaningful for the new citizens and their families,” said Clerk of Court Patrick E. Duffy in the District of Montana. “A deputy clerk of court in each of our five divisions shepherds the process. We invite local musicians to perform the national anthem, and the DAR enjoys handing out voter registration materials and hosting the reception following the court proceeding. Typically, local media cover the event. All who have cameras can capture the event and we always take the ‘class photo.’ With rare exceptions, it is the only time cameras are allowed in our courthouses.”
For many years, the district didn’t hold naturalizations ceremonies, but under Chief Judge Donald Molloy (D. Mont.) the practice has been revived. “Perhaps fittingly,” recounts Duffy, “our first naturalization ceremony on September 11, 2003 was the two-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.”
With some slight variation, the naturalization ceremonies held in federal courts have much in common.
“The judge is on the bench and calls the session to order,” said Chief Judge Roger Hunt, who shares the duties with the bankruptcy, district and magistrate judges in the District of Nevada. “A representative from the USCIS is on hand to identify the candidates, and each candidate is asked to stand, say his or her name and country of birth. There are always all kinds of interesting places. Then the clerk of court moves for admission. There also may be some motions for name changes. After the court grants the motion, the candidates stand and receive the oath of citizenship. Then we welcome them as our newest U.S. citizens and lead them in the pledge of allegiance.” Hunt personally gives each participant a certificate and shakes his or her hand.
The District of Nevada naturalization ceremonies have been graced with performances by high school choruses, a young people’s bell choir, and a court employee’s a cappella rendition of the national anthem. It also has been Hunt’s practice to ask several candidates to tell the group what citizenship means to them.
“A young lady from Bosnia who was a newly naturalized citizen, told us about her childhood,” Hunt remembers, “when she wondered if she would live through the day and about how grateful she is to be in a country where she can wake up in the morning.”
In the southwest United States, along our border with Mexico, the District of New Mexico holds ceremonies every few months in its Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces divisional offices. Typically, they have anywhere from 100-250 new citizens, but this year the number has jumped to 200-400 per ceremony. Such large groups are accommodated off-site; in Santa Fe, ceremonies are held in the adjacent park. The local communities frequently donate a continental breakfast or lunch for the new citizens and their families, JROTC groups present the colors, and civic groups and government officials are invited to attend and greet new citizens when the certificates are distributed.
“At all of our ceremonies we work with the USCIS, the Social Security Administration, the County clerk’s office and the U.S. Postal Service to have representatives on site to provide information and help process social security applications, voter registration and passport applications,” said Space and Facilities Coordinator Lydia Piper in the District of New Mexico. “Many bring little mementos, such as mini American flags or pins, or copies of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, to hand out to new citizens. I know all of our judges enjoy participating in the ceremonies and I think we do a lot to make them special.”
The District Court for the District of Puerto Rico has held naturalization ceremonies in public theaters and at the historic San Cristobal Castle. And Chief Judge Jose Fuste has been known to make house calls.