New Americans: Apathy, Hope and Freedom

Thomas Hobbes said citizenship is based on the people's abstract consent to the authority of the state. But his theoretical notion can not capture the real emotion of submitting to the sovereignty of a new country. Although many who accept United States citizenship look upon the formal procedure with apathy, the social contract it symbolizes is a source of great enthusiasm and pride, an opportunity to begin a new life in a still very new world.

Naturalization is in all respects a civil court procedure; a justice department attorney must present a petition to a District Court Judge, requesting that U.S. citizenship be granted. But the Judges and clerks involved with the process do not begrudge the time they devote to it; rather, they see it as perhaps the happiest of all their tasks. A ceremony for more than 400 new citizens in the Faneuil Hall courtroom reveals a happy atmosphere of bustle and excitement.

An immense and dramatic mural of Daniel Webster addressing Congress overlooks the slowly filling courtroom. Hospitality committee members scoot around distributing miniature American flags and pins and ushers frantically direct the noisy audience of friends and family to their seats. Only the immigrants remain almost ominously silent as they line up at the doorway and wait to pass through the strait of naturalization tables lining the entrance to the courtroom. Many of them refuse to answer questions, saying the procedure means nothing to them but an afternoon off from work. But many describe with relish their new lives in the United States and their reasons for seeking citizenship. For most, it is merely a matter of an inevitable but minor formality put off for years by vain hopes of returning someday to their native country. Still, a few say they feel the ceremony is a deliberate statement that they want to join American life and fit into its culture.

Rodoboldo Hernandez is a worker in a Jamaica Plain candle factory who emigrated from Cuba ten years ago. He can not describe his reasons for leaving his native country, saying that he just got the opportunity and left. But he says he feels great about the naturalization ceremony. "I think it's one of the best things that has happened to me. I live here." He adds that as a citizen he will have much better chances of bringing his father and mother, who still live in Cuba, here.

To be eligible for citizenship resident aliens must usually live in the United States for five years and pass an examination demonstrating literacy, knowledge of simple spoken English and the rudiments of U.S. history. Hernandez describes the exam as very easy. "It's hard not to pass the test. Maybe for young people it's hard."

A few immigrants say they came to the United States because they already had family living here. Yaacob Liebel, who met and married his wife seven years ago while she was visiting Israel, came to the United States three years later. He seems unconcerned about naturalization, saying he seeks citizenship only "because I live here. In a sense it's not different. But it's different with my wife and kids."

Clasford Johnssen, a 71 year-old auto-body worker, says he, too came from his home land, Jamaica, ten years ago because his family was here. He sees his naturalization as a long-awaited change, and describes the attraction of living in the United States: "It's much better here for me or anybody. I could pick up bread here."

Floriano DeArego, a New Bedford carpenter who arrived from St. Michael in the Azores eleven years ago at the age of seventeen, has a highly positive attitude toward the ceremony. "It makes me belong to the country. I don't want to live here and just say I'm in the United States. I want to be part of it." DeArego, who could speak only Portuguese when he came here, says he had no difficulty picking up English, "When you want to learn something you can learn it. I had to. I worked with American people."

Although many immigrants have mixed feelings about dropping citizenship from their homelands, Joseph Sernvski, an electrician, has no regrets at all. He refuses even to name his native land. "No country. I have no country," he says. He, too, knew no English when he arrived here eight years ago; he has learned it since, mostly from watching television. He glows about his naturalization: "It has given me freedom, opportunity to travel. it has given me a country."

Many immigrants live in the United States for years, never doubting their eventual return to their native countries. But for some, the pressures of raising children who become steeped in American culture and prosperity delay their return. James and Carol Keaty point to their son, who wears a Patriots cap, and say they intend to return to their native Dublin in ten or fifteen years. James Keaty's reasons for immigration are hardly specific--"I came to see if I liked the place and I'm still here"--but he expresses a very specific purpose for his naturalization: "to vote for Kennedy next time."

Although his wife says she feels strongly about breaking bonds with her mother country, he does not think it is much of a change. "I still know I'm Irish," he says.

Officially the granting of citizenship occurs with the judge's acceptance of the petition. The more than 300 immigrants wade through the registration tables, and wait for the judge's arrival. She enters, accompanied through the aisles by a retinue of assistants and clerks. The motions for naturalization are cried out by the naturalization attorneys, and she delivers a short speech. The new citizens take the oath of allegiance.

But it is none of these words, but two much simpler ones, that carry the weight of the moment. "Motion granted," the judge says. A life over and a life begun.

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, to 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 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.