Approximately 2 million Americans are members of the armed forces. And each and every one of them volunteered. Whether because they felt forced to by economic, social, or philosophical reasons, each one of them did so knowing it might mean they would one day be called upon to risk their lives in defense of their country and its interests. Which is why, I suspect, every member of the armed forces who I’ve ever questioned about their decision to enlist has expressed a deep and abiding appreciation for the freedoms that American citizenship affords. Sadly, it’s a perspective many of us have lost. We shouldn’t, perhaps, be blamed for it: we’re programmed to habituate to and take for granted anything we’re unlikely to lose.
But a recent experience of my wife’s reminded me just how lucky we are who live in countries that afford their citizens significant degrees of freedom. With her permission, then, and as told from her perspective, I’d like to share what happened to her below.
I was born in Canada but have lived in this country for the last nine years with a green card, which I obtained when I married my husband, Alex. I decided to become a US citizen when our attorney suggested that doing so would make things easier for estate planning purposes.
My appointment to take the oath to become a US citizen was set for Friday November 30th at 9 am at the United States Immigration Service (USIS) office in downtown Chicago. When I arrived I was ushered through through metal detectors by security officers who didn’t seem the least bit interested in being friendly, attentive, or polite. After I reached the second floor I was told to sit in a very specific area of the waiting room (“Between these lines here, not those lines there“) with the mass of other immigrants. A government officer began getting us up row-by-row to enter the auditorium. (They were exceptionally concerned that we did this row-by-row and at a certain, controllable speed.) It annoyed me that they were moving us into the auditorium in such an inefficient way rather than simply having everyone walk into the room and sit down. I had things to do and wanted to get the citizenship ceremony over and done with.
Once we were all seated in the auditorium, the same officer who walked us in then had us get up—again row-by-row—to walk back out to the foyer, hand in our alien registration cards (i.e., green cards) to waiting USIS officers, and take a number. Why didn’t they just have us do this on the way in to the auditorium? I had no idea and as a result became increasingly frustrated. I had scheduled a meeting with a client at his office just around the corner, but there was no cell phone signal in the auditorium where we were being held. Fed up, I finally told an agent that I had to go the bathroom (which was apparently the only reason that would justify me leaving my seat at that point) to find a strong enough cell phone signal in the lobby of the building to pop off an email explaining that I was going to being late. That done, I reentered the auditorium resigned to the fact that this was going to be a long, boring process and that I just needed to be patient.
After an hour, the opening of the ceremony at last began. A video appeared on a large screen at the front of the room. It started by showing old photographs of people of differing nationalities coming in on boats, of families embracing, of American cities gradually expanding as a result of the back-breaking work of immigrants. At this point, I began to pay attention. I looked around at the other 145 immigrants seated with me in the auditorium—immigrants from countries like Albania, Bangladesh, Iraq, Iran, China, India, Mexico and so on—and it suddenly dawned on me that for many of them the ceremony in which we were all about to take part marked the end of a long and painful struggle to secure a better life—for them, their families, and their future generations.
Then the director of the facility—a naturalized US citizen herself, we soon learned—came onstage and spoke to us about the privilege US citizenship carries: about freedom of speech, benefits, a safe food chain, the right to vote for both men and women, and so on. I suddenly began to get emotional, my impatience (about which I felt suddenly embarrassed) quickly shifting to gratitude for having been being born a Canadian, which had afforded me the opportunity to become an American. I didn’t have to fight, literally or figuratively, to be standing there. But many of my fellow new citizens, I suddenly understood, were from countries where speech is not free, where women often felt fear of rape and hunger on a daily basis. Some of the people around me, I realized, had struggled through horrors I’d couldn’t imagine to be able to stand in that place, a place only an hour before I’d been annoyed I had to spend so much time in, and I felt at once humbled and privileged to be standing beside them as I took the same solemn oath. I continued to look around the room while the director spoke about the significance of getting to this place—the Oath Ceremony—a privilege that is only bestowed on a few lucky individuals. Standing with me were people young and old, some dressed in saris, some in turbans, some in suits—but all of us there to become US citizens, full of hope and excitement about out futures.
After the director’s speech we were told a list of each country would be read out loud, and we were asked to stand when we heard our country’s name. “Albania!” came the first, and a few people in the group stood, all with joyful smiles. “Canada!” I heard soon, and I stood, smiling the same smile as the rest, looking around for any fellow countrymen (I didn’t see any).
Once the entire room was standing the director of the office moved that we become US citizens, which was then seconded by another officer officiating at the ceremony. I wasn’t the only one crying as we proceeded to pledge our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.
We were asked to sit and then (again) row-by-row come up to receive our certificate of naturalization. As each row stood, I looked again at the faces of my fellow immigrants and thought what I now saw reflected in their smiles was the grit that had ultimately enabled them to reach this place. I was no longer irritated or impatient. I was grateful for the freedom I’ve been privileged to experience as a Canadian—and now an American.
Unexpectedly, the ceremony in which I became a US citizen has come to represent a milestone in my life. I’ve never had to fear being raped, or hunger, or imprisonment for simply speaking my mind. I’ve had my basic human rights secured by the founders of this country who in some cases traded their lives for the freedom of their children and fellow countrymen—by people who never met me but whose actions have powerfully influenced the direction of my life. I came away from the swearing-in ceremony with a new appreciation for the privileges afforded us by citizenship in this country, and after watching my fellow new citizens’ faces as they took their oath, I will never forget how large a place the planet is and just how lucky we few Americans are.
Next Week: When Everything Seems To Be Going Wrong, Redux