I have researched and written about 19th century immigration, but to be clear, this post is about immigration today. Literally. Today, I had the unique privilege of being invited to attend a Naturalization ceremony at Brooklyn Courthouse. Did I draw historic parallels from the experience? One or two.
First, let me note that while the experience was unique for me, it wasn’t unique for the Brooklyn Courthouse. Judge Bloom opened her proceedings with a few startling statistics. The Courthouse in which we were gathered conducted four such Naturalizations per week, admitting some 50,000 new citizens to the U.S. annually, making it the second busiest courthouse for naturalizations in the nation. Each ceremony generally involves people from 70-75 different countries.
The Naturalization was scheduled at 11:00 a.m. The Brooklyn Ceremonial Courtroom was standing room only when I arrived at 10:50, but two gentlemen in the back row, one from Bangladesh, the other from India cordially squeezed apart to make room for me.
After her preliminary remarks, Judge Bloom led the gathering in the Oath of Allegiance. In advance of the reading of the Oath, it had been stressed several times that every single person had to have the Oath of Allegiance paper in hand and be reading from it out loud. When it came time to read the oath, people raised their right hand in a gesture of allegiance.
What did I do? I had no paper with the oath printed on it. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, and a quick glance up front indicated clerks scanning the crowd to be sure everyone was participating. So along with everyone else, I raised my right hand and repeated the oath, and even pretended to hold a piece of paper in my hand because they’d made such a big deal out of that. I admit I felt a bit silly, like a baseball player in the game line-up mouthing the words of the National Anthem for the benefit of the TV cameras.
The oath concluded, the immigrants were all proclaimed U.S. citizens and welcomed to our country. That could have been the end of the judge’s role, but Judge Bloom turned it into a special occasion, more than just a formality and paperwork. She read out the country of origin of every immigrant and asked each to stand and be applauded. Judge Bloom spoke then, about the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution with its emphasis on liberty, about the importance of voting (and paying taxes), and about the importance of being faithful now to the U.S., but also remembering customs and languages of origin. And about supporting children, hence the future, in every way possible, and especially with regard to education.
It was a proud moment. I marveled about how the Preamble to the Constitution, with its Blessings of Liberty, still resonates more than two centuries later. Citizens rights and liberty are what have lured people to the U.S. all along. Despite this country’s many shortcomings, for instance racial divisions, inequities, and reckless lack of gun regulation, people still come. In what other country are Naturalizations so ongoing, numerous, and diverse, I wonder? And how can we as citizens make its founding principles of rights, justice, and liberty enduring?
I think Judge Bloom got it exactly right when she emphasized getting to know our neighbors. Expressing who we are and showing curiosity about others is a start. In the back row of the Ceremonial Courtroom, I enjoyed talking with the two brand new U.S. citizens I met this morning. We shared our experiences and knowledge and hopes. The Bengali gentleman is passionate about political science, and the gentleman from India preaches at Sikh temples all around the U.S. and in Canada. They both seemed impressed that an American-born citizen would choose to attend the Naturalization. But in a way, it’s a return to my roots. As Judge Bloom pointed out, unless we’re Native American, every one of us has come from somewhere.
Today, for me, the word “welcome” took on a whole new power, and reminded me of the importance of engaging actively with diverse peoples. It doesn’t happen all by itself. It works when we do, toward healing divides and building peace.