USA TODAY US Edition
Naturalized and energized to vote
I had heard former secretary of State Madeleine Albright call it the best day of her life. As I got up at 6:15 on the morning of my own naturalization last week for a ceremony that kicked off at a mystifyingly early 7:30, I wanted to see whether what lay ahead would live up to the hype.
My older sister and I drove to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Oakland, Fla. Because of conflicting travel plans, our parents aren’t due for a citizenship ceremony until July.
Although my family and I always figured we would try to become Americans at some point, we weren’t particularly keen to apply for citizenship until the 2016 campaign season.
My sister and I are eager to participate firsthand in this country’s democratic process as we closely follow the campaign. My parents are a tad more di- rect: “We have to stop Trump,” they often say.
It was clear to all of us that the election and its potentially daunting implications were too consequential for us to sit on the sidelines. At stake is our vision of a tolerant, inclusive America. As would-be voters in the swing state of Florida, we felt we’d be able to make a difference.
After arriving at the USCIS building, we sat in a waiting room with our fellow budding Americans. As employees checked our paperwork, they announced they would collect our green cards. By way of farewell, some gave their cards a quick kiss. I snapped a photo of mine. Those emerald-colored pieces of plastic had meant everything.
As we filed into the space where the ceremony would take place, Natasha Bedingfield’s Un
written played over a loudspeaker. My sister and I exchanged a look. Unwritten was in heavy rotation when we first moved here eight years ago. We didn’t understand all the lyrics back then, but we certainly did now.
The ceremony’s emcee reeled off some stats. In total, 155 of us from 40 countries would become Americans.
A short video about America and its virtues played on a big screen. It started in black and white but dramatically burst into color when the starred and striped banner made its debut.
Next, the speaker called out each country represented. In turn, nationals of those countries stood up, to a warm round of applause, until the whole crowd was on its feet.
My country, Argentina, was called first. I stood up along with eight fellow Argentines. We exchanged knowing “look-at-us-now” glances and smiled proudly. The three largest groups were from Jamaica (27 people), Haiti (22) and Cuba (12).
When everyone was standing, we were prompted to raise our right hands and recite the Oath of Allegiance. We renounced fidelity to any foreign state. We voiced our support for the Constitution. We expressed our willingness to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law.” A couple of sentences and one so-help-me- God later, we had all officially become new U.S. citizens.
The first to congratulate us was President Obama. In a video message, he addressed us as “fellow citizens” in a land of “opportunity, equality and liberty.” He acknowledged we had traveled a long path to earn a spot in that ceremony and said we were to play a role helping write America’s next chapter. “No dream is impossible,” he concluded.
Soon, we received certificates of naturalization. There were photos, hugs, tears.
If I had to choose a theme for the ceremony, it would be this: Anything is possible. Didn’t Czech-born Madeleine Albright make it to secretary of State?
Still, it’s difficult to experience a life event such as this and not feel a few reservations. Would becoming legally American eliminate the “foreignness” so key to my identity in the States? I had always been the kid with the accent and the unpronounceable name. Could those traits co-exist with a U.S. passport?
But gratification as new U.S. citizens wasn’t about practical or existential concerns or achieving dazzling success down the road. It was about what happened in the next five minutes. As soon as we left the auditorium, we got the chance to fill out and submit our first voter registration forms.
Still buzzing from my change of status, I heard the ceremony’s emcee urging people to talk about their naturalization experience on social media. The hashtag du jour: #NewCitizen.
The election and its potentially daunting implications were too consequential for us to sit on the sidelines. At stake is our vision of a tolerant, inclusive America.