The USCIS Naturalization Ceremony (as a Guest)

The ceremony took place at the Campbell Community Center’s Heritage Theatre. First of all, why is it mandatory for citizenship applicants to come to the naturalization ceremony in person? Government seems to like that term “mandatory”. Perhaps it’s for good reason. If they didn’t use the term, employees might burn out too quickly from the overwhelming flood of “special” cases.

We walked from the parking lot to a series of steps leading to a row of tall wooden entrance doors. Pairs of lines formed at each door—one for the citizenship applicants, and a second for their guests. Garam and I approached the doors together, but a USCIS employee stopped us and told me to move to the end of the guest line. Oh well, it was worth a shot. Is it really necessary to separate families at the entrance? In company mission statements, you’ll often see phrases like “relentless customer focus” or “exceeding the customer’s expectations”. Here’s the USCIS mission statement:

“U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”

That’s a fearful statement full of hedges if I’ve ever seen one. It doesn’t mention the person—the immigrant—even once. The first sentence says it all: administering the system. An appropriate question for USCIS in the lead-up to the naturalization ceremony might have been “What can we do to keep applicants and their families together and make the ceremony enjoyable for them?” Instead, USCIS seemed to organize itself around the question “What can they do to make our jobs easier?”

After passing through the guest checkpoint, I rejoined Garam in the foyer. Government workers were yelling questions and instructions at each other in worried tones. Some directed people up to the balcony because it was close to the scheduled start time. Garam left to join the other applicants in the reserved section in front, and then I stood in the foyer alone, made uncomfortable by the staff’s uncertainty.

An older gentleman of the USCIS saw me and directed me through the theatre doors. He ushered me to an empty seat all the way in the front of the orchestra section, stage-right. I don’t know why I was chosen to fill a single seat in the front. Perhaps I was one of the only guests flying solo. The orchestra seats were mostly full, and the theatre had the vibe of a high school assembly.

Garam sat towards the middle. Why the USCIS decided to separate us—for the second time in fifteen minutes—was beyond me. She was seated with a few rows of soon-to-be-naturalized persons from various countries. An ethnically-diverse panel of USCIS staff on stage welcomed the crowd in a few languages (English, Tagalog, Chinese, and—I think—Vietnamese). As they repeated the same script over and over, I kept thinking: Didn’t everyone here have to pass the same citizenship test? In English? A single speech with captions on the overhead projector would do, I think, and it would slash the yakking time. Also, the Korean language was not represented, which bothered me as the spouse of a Korean. I feel it’s my duty to stand up for her country’s reputation, although I wouldn’t go so far as to don the military uniform.

The most fun part of the ceremony was when a USCIS agent called out each country from a list, and asked the applicants from that country to stand—and remain standing—until all countries were called. The three rowdiest groups were China, India, and Mexico. I felt I was witnessing a true snapshot of immigration in northern California. An indication of where the country is headed, perhaps.

The chief USCIS officer, a middle-aged white woman with short blonde hair, gave a deliberate speech at the podium. She reminded everyone “It is your time to celebrate.” Other speakers got up to reiterate the message: celebrate, celebrate, celebrate! Maybe it’s me, but when somebody repeatedly tells me to do something, I want to do it less, not more. My daughter’s the same way. She’ll be wearing big-kids underwear to practice potty training, and then I say to her, “It’s time to put your diaper back on!” Ten reminders later, instead of wearing a diaper she’s ignoring me and running around the house butt naked.

It’s odd being commanded to celebrate when there’s no music and you’re seated in an auditorium next to strangers. “Celebrate! But don’t move. Just be happy in your seats for a minute, OK? Even if the process we imposed on you was expensive, endless, and depressing.” What a joke. Forced attendance at a contrived “celebration” in order to get your citizenship. It reminds me of forcing a high school kid to go to the prom. Chances are, the kid’s not gonna have fun. At least prom has fruit punch and a DJ.

We watched a video, listened to a woman sing the star-spangled banner in a pop-star voice without the stardom. Then we recited the pledge of allegiance all together. It really felt like a big high-school gathering. I don’t know how my wife felt about the ceremony, but as a guest, it was a waste of time. Here’s my unsolicited advice for a better naturalization ceremony: Tell inspiring stories of people’s paths to citizenship, and highlight their plans for remaining good citizens. Also, make the ceremony optional.