“Oh, you speak English? Thank God. You’re the first one today,” said the immigration officer.
I came to the U.S. in 1970, following the love of my life. We spent the first year in Binghamton, NY and after marrying, we moved to Israel for four years. My wife worked as an artist in Tel Aviv. She landed a job at AT magazine, a women’s publication owned by Maariv, Israel’s largest newspaper at the time. She had always wanted to study graphic art, so she applied for and subsequently was accepted into Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and Parsons School of Design in New York. New York beat out Jerusalem, so in 1975 we moved there, ostensibly for 2-3 years. Somehow we never left.
As I was married to a U.S. citizen, I had applied for a green card in Israel, and in those days, it was a relatively easy process. The questionnaire was somewhat amusing.
“Are you a prostitute?”
“Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?”
“Have you ever been a member of a political party?”
The questions seemed somewhat simple-minded, and it was only years later that I realized that the questions weren’t really that important; the answers were. It is much easier to deport a person for lying on the application than it is to deport him or her for errant behavior.
After about 10 years of working and paying taxes, I decided it was time to apply for citizenship. Being a political junkie, I also wanted to start voting. I studied for the test.
“What are two rights of everyone living in the U.S.?”
“What do we show loyalty to when we say the Pledge of Allegiance?”
I wonder if I could answer them all now.
When I met the officer, who was thrilled that I could speak English, he asked me, “Who makes the laws?”
“The Legislature?” I answered.
I was baffled.
“Cong… Cong…” he volunteered.
“Oh, you mean Congress?” I replied.
“Yes. Very good.”
Even though I did know the answers, his coaching was amusing. Needless to say, I passed with flying colors and about a year later I was invited to the swearing-in ceremony.
The ceremony took place at the main courthouse in Brooklyn, whose website currently describes the location as “the site of General George Washington’s escape from Manhattan during the American Revolution, an escape that ensured a later victory for his army.” What a historic site for a building that epitomizes American democracy.
The day I attended the ceremony, there were over a hundred people waiting to become U.S. citizens. They seemed to have come from all over the world, but as a resident New Yorker, seeing this mélange of people was unremarkable. A United States District Court Judge presided. He was a tall, warm man in his sixties. He talked about the great honor it was to become an American Citizen. He also spoke about the responsibility and duties that came with the process.
He told us how earlier in the century his parents had come from Calabria, Italy, penniless, searching for a better life, and finally escaping the grinding poverty of their native land. How they worked hard to raise a family and educate them, because this was the way to a better life in the US. And now here he was, a United States District Court Judge, the product of their struggle, swearing in new immigrants. I found the ceremony beautiful and touching, and even though it was tinged with jingoism, I felt pride receiving my certificate. When it was over, I noticed a large bowl near the exit into which many people, clutching their naturalization certificates, were joyfully discarding their old papers and passports.
This was in 1985, and today I can’t help contrasting this poignant ceremony with the discourse in current politics; singling out immigrants as somehow dangerous or irrelevant. Most of them are just like the parents of that judge, poor and afraid. People like that become the best citizens because they are here to try to improve their lives, not to play the system.
We are a country of immigrants, just a generation or two away from the “Old Country,” and almost all of us are proud of our American Citizenship and our heritage.
The ceremony over, I walked to the nearest post office and gleefully applied for a U.S. Passport.