Immigration up close and personal: Celebrating the new citizen across the hall

One by one, the judge listed the 51 countries represented by the 121 people about to become new American citizens at the John J. Moakley Federal Courthouse.

“If you’re from Bangladesh you’ll be standing a bit longer,” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Frank J. Bailey cautioned as he began his alphabetic roll call last Thursday. “If you’re from Vietnam, you’ll just be standing for a second.”

Photo by Elianna Nuzum

“Barbados, Belize, Brazil…” he continued, pausing for the applause greeting the women and men standing at the announcement of their homeland, some waving a small American flag provided by the court.

“Guatemala, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti,” the judge went on, pausing to add the HAI-EE-TEE pronunciation preferred by some. The gesture struck a respectful chord, a simple acknowledgement that the world doesn’t always see — or say — everything the way Americans do.

I was awaiting mention of a country just a few down the list from Haiti, and clapped extra loud when our son-in-law, Marton, stood as the judge announced: “Hungary.” Guided by Project Citizenship, Marton completed a citizenship process given urgency both by the current political climate and his desire to vote.

After administering the oath of allegiance, Judge Bailey welcomed the group to the citizenry of this “nation of immigrants,” a country, he noted, where most of us can thank an ancestor not that many generations back for getting us where we are today.

He offered a grateful nod to his great-grandmother’s emigration from Ireland in 1899, not long after my Irish-born grandmother started work as a maid at Boston’s Parker House Hotel. The judge introduced as the day’s main speaker Michel Bamani, a former intern from his courtroom who came to the U.S. as a child from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bamani, an attorney and vice president at State Street Bank, urged the group to embrace their new citizenship — especially at the voting booth — but to remember where they came from, too.

“Each one of you likely speaks another language, has a different perspective based on where you’ve been and has a different education degree in your country of origin,” he told the group. “Those differences and diversity are exactly what makes America and you an American.”

What a concept: Celebrating American citizenship in the same breath that honors immigrants and the homelands that will remain forever part of them as well as their new adopted nation.

It was a theme echoed in dozens of Facebook comments added in response to family posts about Marton’s swearing in.

Photo by Elianna Nuzum

“Gratulálunk, Marci,” wrote Eszter Tóth, a physician in Budapest and friend of Marton’s and Kate’s. Continuing in Hungarian, she added: “Nekünk azért magyar maradsz,” a comment translated by Facebook as: “For us, you stay Hungarian.”

Kasia Kietlinska, a friend of ours who immigrated to the U.S. from Poland 35 years ago, told Marton: “We did this and it was a very solemn moment. It marked a real change: now I have two countries to worry about. Good luck and congratulations!”

Anne Donohue, a journalism professor at Boston University, chimed in: “Maybe you will be given an American flag, as they did my when my daughter, adopted from China, got her citizenship. The flag came complete with a label: made in China.”

Just before Judge Bailey entered the room Thursday, Marton slipped his flag (labeled only with “U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services”) to our almost three-year-old grandson, Mateo. Unfamiliar with flags but quite taken these days with hocuspocus, Mateo was happy to get his hands on what looked to him like a magic wand.

With the judge approaching, the clerk invoked the usual command of “All rise!” The crowd hushed and clambered to its feet. Breaking the silence among those around him was Mateo. Waving his flag and using his “outside’ voice, he blurted: “Abracadabra! Everybody SIT DOWN.”

While Mateo enjoyed the illusion of a working wand, our national immigration debate is showing not a shred of wizardry. Again last week, the Senate failed to resolve the question of just who will qualify for citizenship in the years ahead.

Amid all the celebrating Thursday, it was easy to forget the people not in the room.

I’m thinking of the 7,700 Massachusetts residents from El Salvador and Haiti facing deportation next year when their Temporary Protective Status (TPS) will expire.

That number understates the stakes, of course. What will become of the 4,200 U.S.-born children of Salvadorans with TPS? Or the 1,000 U.S.-born children of Haitians with the status? Or the small businesses and families who rely on TPS-holders for the work they do?

Nearly 8,000 residents of Massachusetts are in jeopardy of losing the protection of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, 6,300 of them in the Boston area.

Just three miles southwest of Thursday’s swearing in is the Suffolk County House of Correction, where more than 100 immigrants are currently locked up after being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

At the conclusion of the swearing in, the new citizens filed by a couple of exhibits honoring the sort of activist citizenship it will take to right wrongs like those.

One of them recounts the 1854 resistance of many Bostonians to the Fugitive Slave Act, an uprising not far from the Moakley Courthouse that failed to free 19 year-old Anthony Burns but fueled the struggle against slavery. The exhibit also provides a telling backdrop for the ongoing Beacon Hill debate over the role of local police in federal immigration enforcement.

The other exhibit includes a powerful reminder from Frederick Douglass about the hell-raising dimensions of citizenship: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the ground.”

Online, some commenters expressed admiration for Marton’s pursuit of citizenship amid so much turmoil about the American identity. Apologizing for the results of our most recent presidential election, Facebook friend Helene Mako urged: “You can help pick the next one!”

Perhaps with that in mind, Marton and many of the new citizens made a quick final stop right outside the assembly room: At the voter registration table.

What have your personal encounters with the immigration issue been like?

One thought on “Immigration up close and personal: Celebrating the new citizen across the hall

  1. Welcome, Morton, to American citizenry! I am confident you will take it seriously. And thank you, Bill, for telling this story.

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