Becoming Americans

Boston, USA. 13 October 2016

On October 13th, a flow of people descended slowly from the steep staircase of Faneuil Hall, pouring out in the square of the market, where a crowd of families and friends was waiting for them. Going out from the entrance door, they waved small American flags. They had just taken part to the ceremony of naturalization held in the Great Hall, and they are now American citizens.

Earlier in the morning the Great Hall was colored by a large variety of traditional dresses, skin colors and ornaments of the would-be American citizens. Faneuil Hall, also known as “The Cradle of Liberty”, is a meaningful place for the city of Boston. Since 1743 it has been a marketplace and meeting hall, and was a crucial site during the war of independence from Great Britain. The Great Hall on the second floor, with its reach Georgian architecture and the large paintings, hosted the people waiting for the ceremony together with their families and friends, who could assist to the ceremony from the balconies above the hall. Before the judge arrived, the would-be American citizens had to line up for checking-in and returning their permanent residence card, together with answering some questions. The officers checked if they had travelled outside the country after the interview they took previously with the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services).

The Oath of Allegiance during the naturalization ceremony, that officially signs their new status as citizens, is just the last step of the procedure they had to go through. After five years of continuous legal residency in the USA (LPR status, lawful permanent residence, also known as green card), immigrants that are at least 18 years old can apply for naturalization. They have to expect an interview with USCIS where the officers ask them about their background, character and attachment to the constitution. During the interview they have also to take an English and a civic test concerning USA history and government, and they are required to answer correctly six out ten civics questions. All the 100 civics questions are publicly released by the USCIS. Among them it is possible to find questions such as “What are the words that express the idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution? (Answer: We the People”). The last step is taking the Oath of Allegiance in front of the judge during the assigned date. USCIS provides some guidelines for the ceremony, where it can be read “The naturalization ceremony is a solemn and meaningful event. Please dress in proper attire to respect the dignity of this event (please no jeans, shorts, or flip flops)”.

Boston, Oct. 13. In front of the main entrance of Faneuil Hall the crowd of families, relatives and friends wait for the new American citizens exiting from the Great Hall. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin
Boston, Oct. 13. In front of the main entrance of Faneuil Hall the crowd of families, relatives and friends wait for the new American citizens exiting from the Great Hall. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

 

According to the Office of Immigration Statistics of DHS (Department of Homeland security), there has been a 21% increase in the number of applications comparing the first two quarters of fiscal year 2016 (October 2015 to March 2016) with the same period in 2015, hiking up from 363,000 to 440,000 applications. The Office of Immigration Statistics released recently the “2014 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics”, which contains some interesting data regarding the trends of naturalization, lawful permanent residents, refugees, asylees, non immigrant admissions and enforcement actions. The data cover a span of time from 1907, with 21,113 applications, to 2014, with 773,824 applications. Some relevant peaks can be observed in 1997, with 1,412,712 petitions filed, and in 2007, with 1,382,993 petitions, dropping suddenly in 2008 to 525,786 applications.

 

 

Regarding the origin of the new citizens of 2014, out of the 653,416 people naturalized, the largest number came from Africa and South America, with Mexico, India, Philippines, China and Cuba as the top 5 countries of birth.

 

 

Most of the naturalized citizens were female, from 25 to 40 years old, with a significant number of them working in management and professional related occupations, or not working (homemakers, students, retirees, unemployed). California, Florida, New York, Texas were the American states to welcome the largest number of new citizens.

 

 

 

To begin the ceremony of naturalization in Fanueil Hall, the Federal judge Rya W. Zobel read aloud the list of countries of origin of the applicants, asking them to stand up in representation of their country of birth. Among the crowd of suits, elegant outfits, sari and veils, there were 355 people coming from 61 different countries. The joyful atmosphere of applauses, whistles and  hollers became suddenly solemn, when the American anthem was chanted. All the participants then pledged allegiance to their new country rising their right hand, and swearing together with the following words:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God”.

Boston, Oct. 13. In the Great Room of Faneuil Hall, a man waves an American flag before the naturalization ceremony starts. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin
Boston, Oct. 13. In the Great Room of Faneuil Hall, a man waves an American flag before the naturalization ceremony starts. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

After the new citizens burst out in applauses, the judge welcomed them as new participants of the civic life of the country, reminding them of the great honor and also the rights and duties related to their new status. The judge urged them to register for the vote before October 19th, in order to be able to participate in the vote for the elections of the new American president on November 8th. Outside Fanueil Hall, some volunteers were also distributing pamphlets with the guidelines for the registration for voting.

After the ceremony, the new citizens were invited to Armenian Heritage Park on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, for a reception and a moment of music and dances organized by the Armenian Community of Boston. One of the organizer of the event welcomed them saying that “this journey you are about to take provides you all with the chance to accomplish your dream”. The judge Rya W. Zobel took also part to the celebration, giving her thanks to the Armenian Community, for this moment of welcome to the new citizens, and also for its long time and consistent recognition and celebration of the immigrant experience. During her speech she recalled her likewise experience as immigrant coming from Germany to the USA, stressing again the opportunities that the USA gives to the people living in the country. “I knew from my life, as immigrant, that it was not always easy to learn a new language, to accept new customs and norms, to adjust to school and work experience very different from what we knew before coming here. But I also know that this country, even today, will give you opportunities not found anywhere out in the world. With determination and hard-working it is possible in this country to reach heights. What I wish for you is that you can see the world you wish, you figure out a way and ultimately you reach the place you want to occupy” she said. In her final words, she invited again the new citizens to register for the vote. “In the meantime, you do have a job to do. You are now citizens, and you have to behave as citizens, you have to play by the rules, and in particular you have to participate immediately in the government of this country by voting in the elections of our new president, that is now yours too!” she said.

The judge Rya W. Zobel is not the only example that recalls and embodied the principles of the USA, a country based on the democratic power in the hands of its citizens, and of the diversity of its population. In November 2014, President Obama created an interagency body, the White House Task Force on New Americans, whose aim is to strengthen the federal government’s integration efforts and to build welcoming communities. The president explained the necessity of the task force stressing the advantage given to the USA by their tradition of welcoming immigrants, in terms of keeping the country “youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial”, and shaping their character as “a people with limitless possibilities — people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose.” Some of tasks accomplished in 2015 by the Task Force were the “Building Welcoming Communities Campaign”, aimed at encouraging local efforts with 47 communities, the launch of  the “Named Presidential Ambassadors for Citizenship and Naturalization”, in order to harness the stories of prominent new Americans and U-S.-born individuals with immigrant roots, and the “Stand Stronger Citizenship Awareness Campaign”, aimed at reaching the 8.8 million lawful permanent residents (LPRs) eligible to apply for citizenship. The core aim of these efforts is to promote naturalization, bolster integration initiatives, and increase awareness of the rich contributions of new Americans. In a speech given in President Barack Obama on July 4, 2014, he reminded that “we believe our diversity, our differences, when joined together by a common set of ideals, makes us stronger, makes us more creative, makes us different.  From all these different strands, we make something new here in America.”

Boston, Oct. 13. People from different countries swear together in front of the judge the Oath of Allegiance that close the naturalization ceremony. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin
Boston, Oct. 13. People from different countries swear together in front of the judge the Oath of Allegiance that close the naturalization ceremony. Photo by Silvia Mazzocchin

SOURCES OF DATA

“2014 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics”, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2016

Charts by Silvia Mazzocchin

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