Just for a Minute, This Country Feels Like Itself Again

naturalization ceremony




Dear Jeannette: It is with great pleasure that I am inviting you to attend my oath ceremony for becoming a U.S Citizen scheduled on April 12 at 8:00 am at Saint Louis District Court. I understand that it could be challenging to make it happen as it might require other logistics…. 


Mupenda goes on to offer to cater any expenses. He says, elated, that becoming a U.S. citizen will change his life. The email fills me with joy for him—and the sting of disenchantment. Once a refugee, he now runs several small businesses and has hiked our national parks and earned a degree and made friends. Could someone this resourceful not have found a different country? I think of how often, in the past eight years, my husband and I have joked-not-joked about leaving….

The U.S. did not begin as a dream for Mupenda, only a necessity. When civil war tore his country and his father was killed, he showed up cold and scared; endured a job at a warehouse; found work translating from French, Swahili, and several other languages; reported as a correspondent for an African news service. And now he does have a dream: fighting for human rights, marrying a woman his beloved mother will approve of, and starting an American family.

Arriving at the Eagleton courthouse, I see some of the immigrants alone, others bedecked like parade floats with friends and family who cannot stop waving and smiling. They take photos nonstop, the prospective citizens leaving their designated seats up front to pose holding the tiny American flag they were just given. I glance at the older gentleman who was the first to take his seat in the reserved rows, immaculate in his suitcoat, looking around calmly. Where was he until now, I wonder. What has he seen, suffered, needed?

Across from him are two ugly orange pillars and a dark brown wall, and I think of the days when courtrooms were mahogany and marble. These people have no idea what we used to be. Or maybe they do, and that was what drew them, and they are now in for a terrible series of surprises.

A toddler is all dressed up for her mom’s ceremony: cream plush hoodie, cream satin bow, ruffled cream dress. She, too, is about to become a citizen. Another woman is pregnant, and her American-born husband, seated behind me, is bubbling over with pride. “I wish she were in the other row so we could see her face,” he tells his dad.

We wait—ninety minutes—for the actual ceremony. The American-born are grousing about the long wait, their parking meters, the lack of free wifi. None of the prospective citizens are grousing. Give them a few years, I think sadly. Ease is addictive.

Mupenda must be running late. Surely he will not miss this? Assistant U.S. Attorney James Delworth, the naturalization examiner, enters and goes from one person to the next, chatting knowledgeably about people’s home countries, welcoming as he checks the seating chart. His assistant today is a law student who, he will later proudly inform the audience, is a naturalized citizen herself, about to receive her law degree.

I remember a recent report about “perceptions that migrants displace host citizens in job markets, excessively depend on welfare programs, and fail to actively engage with their local communities.” Anger wells. I calm myself with an effort; the ceremony is about to begin. But where is Mupenda? A minute later, he rushes in, clad in a camel’s hair coat my mother would have pronounced classic. I wave. Grinning with relief, he thrusts his camera at me, eager to document this day. He was waiting outside the courtroom for me; I, rule-conscious, had obediently gone inside. “I thought you had to come in once you were checked,” I say. Mupenda, shaped by more communal values, simply told the authorities he could not go in yet; he was waiting for his friend.

A woman comes to the mic and announces, “If you go home and find your name is misspelled, you will have to file an N-[a string of numbers and letters follows] form. It costs $555 and takes about a year.” She wants them to doublecheck here, for their own sake. But this is their first word of welcome?

For her, this ceremony is no doubt rote by now, unexciting. Like U.S. citizenship, for me.

The Courthouse Singers give us a moving (were I not cynical) rendition of “America the Beautiful.” And crown thy good with brotherhood…. My lips press tight. Families have been pulled apart by our politics, and we often revile one another. Those alabaster cities are dimmed by so many tears, they have worn grooves.

The Hon. Rodney H. Holmes does better than that first announcer, saying warmly, “Our country is empowered and strengthened when we have new citizens.” News lost on presidential candidate Donald Trump, who in his first term reduced the number of refugees and wanted to cut legal immigration in half. He now wants to bar anyone from a Muslim-majority country and anyone with Communist beliefs; roll back Temporary Protected Status, stop allowing Ukrainians to receive temporary work permits, continue separating migrant parents from their children as a deterrent. He likes to tell the story of a woman who took in a snake, only to be bitten.

The new citizens, who may have slid in just in time, recite their oath, swearing to give no fidelity to foreign princes or potentates. “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” they say. Good they included domestic, I think wryly.

Next comes the Pledge of Allegiance, insisting that we are indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Never happened. Are we even still trying?

The new citizens’ faces suggest every other part of the world, yet as they recite, all the accents blend into a single voice—that sounds American. Which feels almost eerie until I remember the unity this nation was supposed to make possible.

It is time for the Courthouse Singers to sing the national anthem. Nothing is said about joining in, but many of the new citizens do, spontaneously, their voices stronger and surer with each carefully memorized line.

These are the people Trump says are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

Meanwhile, they all want photos of themselves with the judge. Family members come up, too. It takes forever, but nobody wants to rush this moment. The significance, the gratitude, vibrate. I feel like a worm to have given up on us so easily.

The first thing Mupenda does, the minute we leave the courtroom, is register to vote. Later, celebrating at Himalayan Yeti—whose naan bears a soothing resemblance to the chapati he grew up eating—he is exultant. A U.S. passport will make it easier to report from various countries in Africa and Europe. With his languages, he might even apply for a job with the State Department. The world is open to him.

I ask what he loves about his new country, mainly so I can remember feeling the same way. He says he loves “the freedom, something I have not known since I was born.” The ability to go out at night without being accosted by thieves. The fact that politicians and billionaires are tried for their crimes; no one is above the law. Above all, the peace of “living in a country where you never have to flee any war or persecution.”

He makes my cynicism feel childish.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.