[Cross-posted on The Faculty Lounge]
A federal judge recently conducted an inspiring naturalization ceremony, which was brought to my attention by an observer. The judge – who has asked to remain anonymous – has kindly allowed me to share a few paragraphs from the remarks:
In 1956, almost 60 years ago, my father sat in a courtroom much like this one. He was born in Poland in 1917, and during World War II he suffered through many years in concentration camps. After he survived that experience, he came to the United States and became a United States citizen. So, for that reason, this oath of citizenship is special to me, as I know it is special to all of you. I take great pleasure and pride in administering the oath myself.
Renouncing your allegiance to the land of your birth means that you are making a commitment to the United States of America. But that does not mean you must renounce all of the fond memories, the traditions and customs of your native land. We expect that you will bring those things here with you, and that they will blend with the many other customs and traditions of people who have come to this country from all over the world and will make the United States a richer place for it. That is our country: out of many peoples, out of many heritages, we are one nation.
My observer-friend wrote to me that it “was a very moving ceremony (and I am not a super patriotic person normally). I saw 136 people become citizens.” Unfortunately, not everyone sees things that way.
Consider a recent column in Salon by Prof. Tithi Bhattacharya of the history department at Purdue University. After living in the U.S. for ten years as a permanent resident, Prof. Bhattacharya decided to become a citizen. As her article explains, she did this not out of any sense of admiration or affection for the United States, but rather because a U.S. passport would make it easier for her to obtain visas for her frequent world travels. As she put it, “I was getting tired of the harassment, money and stress involved in applying for visas, documents I needed to go essentially anywhere outside of the United States,” and U.S. citizenship would provide her with “the golden passport that grants you unrestricted, visa-free entry to most nations on Earth.”
Idealism has never been a requirement of citizenship, but Bhattacharya’s cynicism really kicks in when she describes her annoyance at the naturalization ceremony – which she calls the “loyalty oath ceremony” (scare quotes Bhattacharya’s). In her view, it was too inconvenient, too long, too boring, and too patriotic. She objected to the choice of music (performed by an “all white” choral group), the identity of the ushers (who were from the American Legion), and the repeated praise of the United States. One speaker had the nerve to say that “the American flag represents ‘freedom and democracy’ all over the world” (internal scare quotes again Bhattacharya’s). She could barely keep herself from protesting out loud.
Bhattacharya describes herself as a Marxist, which may explain her disdain for the United States, which is evidently so great that she could barely tolerate an hour’s worth of anodyne patriotism. Nor could she appreciate the significance of military veterans welcoming new citizens from around the world. At a time of increasing xenophobia – when Donald Trump is calling for a complete suspension of all new green cards – it should be reassuring to see the American Legion endorsing naturalization.
The only good thing to come of the ceremony, according to Bhattacharya, was a small gift from the “Burmese house cleaners” who were seated next to her. “I came away from the ceremony with my Naturalization Certificate and a piece of Burmese candy,” she writes. “One I knew to be useful. The other was valuable.”
It is sad that U.S. citizenship means no more to Bhattacharya than a piece of candy. There are millions of refugees in the world who would change places with her in a heartbeat – not to mention 11 million dreamers and undocumented workers in the United States – even at the cost of sitting through some boring speeches.
It is going to be challenging enough to sustain important immigration initiatives such as DACA and DAPA – President Obama’s suspension of deportation for dreamers and their families -- after the 2016 election. Cynical articles like Bhattacharya’s will only provide fodder for the nativists.
My experience with naturalization – even before I read the judge’s remarks – has been that most people are absolutely thrilled by the opportunity.
I therefore asked my mother about her own naturalization ceremony in 1952, when she became a citizen under the War Brides Act. “It was actually a little disappointing,” she told me. “I had expected it to be a bigger deal.”