In a previous post about the citizenship process, I focused on the sometimes bewildering steps to get to this stage, but the citizenship ceremony itself could not have been better done.
The instructions were to show up at the LA Convention Center by 12:10pm and around 3,000 people plus family and friends were lined up outside quietly awaiting entry. This was a very mixed bunch of people, each one there for different reasons and from who knows how many different countries, but we all had one thing in common. We had all arrived as strangers to a foreign land and chose to become part of a great nation. For that reason there were smiles and head-nodding all around.
Once inside, we filed past two rows of desks appropriately staged due to their political affiliations. On the left were representatives of the Democratic party urging people to register to vote once the ceremony was complete. A picture of President Obama was proudly displayed. On the right were the Republicans with a picture of... Ronald Reagan. That one puzzled me. There have been two Republican presidents since Reagan, both named Bush, so it was interesting that they chose to entice people with Reagan. Then again, if there was a Republican president right now, whose photo would the Democrats display? Bill Clinton? Hillary Clinton? One to ponder.
We entered the South Hall of the convention center which was a little surreal to me. The only time I ever go there is for the LA auto show and I'm used to seeing shiny new cars, bright lights, coffee and snacks during press days. Not today. The cavernous space was empty save for thousands of chairs, two large screens, a giant American flag and a podium. Everyone lined up again to check in, with our forms and green cards on hand. With the click of a hole punch, a neat little hole was placed in the green card, rendering it useless. I must say that's a little scary, since the card literally controls your life when you're a resident alien.
We all then filed into the empty chairs, and it took a very long time to fill them all up. It was probably 1:45pm by the time everything commenced. I've never seen that many people in one space be so quiet. There's something strange about not knowing anyone around you and not knowing even if you speak the same language. There's nothing to say, really: everyone's there for one reason alone. In our packets, we received passport application forms, voting information and a card with the Oath of Allegiance, together with a little American flag, which, I'm glad to say, proudly proclaimed that it was "Made in the USA."
Once the judge arrived, the ceremony began and we got straight to it, all standing with our right hands raised, quoting our Oath of Allegiance. Within a few minutes, we were all, officially, Americans and I, along with three thousand people, waved my little flag with glee.
The judge then chatted for a while and this was a lovely moment. He told a story about a Chinese couple who arrived in the USA in the 1950's and went on to have nine children. Each were urged by their parents to become scientists, doctors and lawyers. Well, they did. The third child in that family was Judge Lew himself, who became the first Chinese American District Court judge, appointed by President Reagan. Applause rang through the hall. He went on to say that almost 5,000 people were sworn-in as citizens that day. There was a session earlier and then the one we attended.
By the way, this happens every other month in LA and that's just one city. I have no idea how many cities around the country hold ceremonies like this, but imagine even 25 cities swearing in 5,000 people every other month and you have at least 750,000 new citizens each year.
The judge mentioned that the top five nations represented were, in order, Mexico, The Philippines, Iran, China and Vietnam. That explained why there were so many Asian people there - three Asian countries in the top five. The oldest person there was a 97-year old and she was mentioned by name, again to rousing applause.
After the videos were done, we collected our naturalization certificates after handing in our mutilated green cards for good. We walked back out into the LA sunshine still the same people, but, changed forever.
Every single official I encountered yesterday was kind, happy, smiling and helpful. It was well-organized and a joyous occasion for all. I couldn't be prouder of everyone involved.
I've had questions from a few Brits about whether this is something they should do too. It's obviously a personal choice. If you have a green card, you can exist forever with that, without being able to vote in a federal election or serve on a jury. I have to admit that being able to retain my UK citizenship was a huge reason why I embarked on this route. If I had to give up being British, I just couldn't have done it, and here's why. When you come from a country that is equal to the USA in every way (and I think I can say that without offending anyone,) you look at things differently. Most people in that room were coming from circumstances and situations light years away from mine. Being in the US for them means freedom, justice and equality they may never have had. When you already have that, it's maybe harder to justify.
For me, I choose to live in the US and have done for 22 years. My daughter was born in the US and she too has dual citizenship. I believe strongly in what the US stands for, and, since my ceremony fell on the day after the bombings in Boston, it made it even more poignant. I don't care what your politics are: killing innocent people is never right.
This is one person's experience. I'm glad to share it. And if anyone has any questions or comments, please let me know. Now I have to apply for my very first US passport!