I popped into the world in Tulsa, Okla., so I was born American without even trying. Two perks of birth are nationality and citizenship. Though I’ve never considered trading in my country for another, sometimes people do.
As a Friend of the Kansas City Public Library, I volunteered a few hours on May 3 to help with crowd control while about 75 applicants finalized their naturalization process of becoming Americans. I had no idea what to expect, though my brother-in-law went through this years ago.
Two of us were assigned to elevator duty, so we settled in and tried to look official yet friendly. Once the program began, an alphabetical stream of countries flashed onto the screen, and the people from them stood while the rest of us clapped and cheered.
From the many places represented, included were two Iraqi brothers, a Frenchman, several Russians, a Brit, and at least one Cuban. As each country’s image appeared, the loudest cheer went up for Mexico. It was a warm and welcoming crowd, and since the library was operating during the ceremony, patrons continued to browse, but also to watch and listen to the goings-on.
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It was great people-watching: when so many different languages are spoken in the same room, communication happens through eye-contact, nodding and smiling. The politeness of body language was mesmerizing to watch.
During the recital of the oath of citizenship, members of the court walked throughout the crowd and made sure the applicants were reading and saying the oath. During the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, one young Laotian mother attended a fussy baby whose olfactory message from her diaper was unmistakably urgent. I took the mom upstairs so she could change her baby while her husband cleaned up the floor. She spoke no English at all, but kept saying thank you with her smile.
It could have been routine for the presiding judge to say a few words, but when this one began talking about his parents, who met in a displaced persons camp in Europe after World War II and emigrated, not just to America, but here, to the Midwest, I was not the only one touched by the beautiful way he illuminated that when we call ourselves Americans, we are all immigrants. It was deeply appreciated, based on the unanimous, sustained applause he received.
Only one incident stuck out as oddly negative. A man approached the elevators and as he waited, I asked him if he, too, was involved in the program. He sneered and muttered that the whole thing was stupid. I didn’t respond to him, just pasted a fake smile on my face and waited for the doors to close between us.
Maybe he represented the one thing on everyone’s mind, but which no one wanted to mention that particular day: intolerance of immigration, period. The well-known fact that these naturalized Americans’ new president was elected, partially, by making immigration a negative issue, as have several presidents historically through fear or ignorance, cannot possibly have been lost on them. They will continue to come across it, but now as citizens who can and should vote.
The time came for the applicants, families, friends and interpreters to attend the reception, where they received their paperwork, had a snack, took photos and marked with pushpins on a map of the world, the country whose citizenship they had just renounced. I watched as emotions, confusion, and sometimes joy, crossed their faces.
The feeling of excitement was infectious. Participants had their pictures taken with the judge, with their new friends, their families.
As I watched the activity, the young mom from Laos came over and beckoned me to follow. I did, and she pointed to the wall where people were being photographed in front of the American flag. Without saying a word, she handed her husband her phone, to take a picture of us, and we posed, arms around each other.
It was her way to say thanks for making her experience special on the day she became just another Midwestern American mom.
Reach Ellen Murphy at email@example.com