Lessons on citizenship, from your local naturalization ceremony

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Oakland’s Paramount Theatre — a historic art deco movie palace adorned with twin staircases, carved ceilings and the indelible footprints of almost a century of cinema connoisseurs, orchestras and community folk — glows amid the East Bay morning fog.

Around the theater’s perimeter, vendors speckle the street with bouquets of red roses and dyed blue flowers, baseball caps, striped cowboy hats, American flags and patriotic plastic beads.

Inside the theater, there are suits and sweatshirts; languages and laughter. In one corner, there stands a man in a vibrant turmeric kufi cap; in another, a woman in a hijab flushed with pale pink. There’s a woman in a Chinese silk scarf and a man in head-to-toe red, white and blue. The theater lobby fills with people of every shade of skin, every age and kin.

It’s a robust congregation.

Once a month, the Paramount Theatre transforms into a site of civic celebration as it hosts morning and afternoon naturalization ceremonies for soon-to-be American citizens. In March, I decided to attend one of these ceremonies in order to acquire a fresher, more profound understanding of what it means to gain the responsibilities of citizenship.

At this particular ceremony, 1,085 immigrants gather from 83 countries, the most popular being India (207 people), China (168), Mexico (142), the Philippines (126) and Canada (31).

Each of these soon-to-be-citizens has spent years navigating America’s notoriously complex immigration system. To seek naturalization, one must be at least 18 years old and a permanent resident of the United States for three years if married to an American citizen or five years if not — or one must be a member of the U.S. military. Once an application is approved, a trail of forms, background checks, an interview with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, and English and civics tests are all typically part of the process.

In the years it takes to acquire citizenship, many applicants already grow well-accustomed to the “American way of life.” Today’s ceremony is more than just a celebration of shifted legal status — it’s a culmination of the long, often arduous journeys that many immigrants and their relatives undertook to stand in the Paramount Theatre’s halls.

As the ceremony commences, a Social Security Administration representative hums through logistics, a USCIS officer speaks to the crowd in five languages, passport instructions are underlined, fees are expounded, and certificates of citizenship are dispersed. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” booms through the auditorium as a slideshow projects photographs of monuments in the District of Columbia, immigrants at Ellis Island, veterans, and America’s canyons, deserts and shores.

A video message from Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state born in the former Czechoslovakia, seems to remind the crowd of the great potential for immigrants in America — their ability to ascend to great heights, to flee persecution in search of peace and to live in a prospering democracy.

But another set of salutations from President Donald Trump offers a different underlying narrative. He pays due to American freedom, yet as president, he undermines the most basic pillars of that freedom (such as the First Amendment). His words in the video remind citizens that regardless of their national origin and faith, America belongs to them. Yet he has encouraged xenophobia and racism by spouting slurs against Muslim and Latinx people and fails to adequately condemn white supremacists on American soil.

Still, the immigrants in this room stand proudly for the nation they’re about to formally join. An Afghan immigrant walks to the stage and leads the room through a roaring pledge of allegiance. A USCIS officer conducts the oath of allegiance as thousands of palms are suspended in the air. The oath’s words form a pact among a thousand strangers.

As the ceremony concludes, newly minted citizens flutter their flags in a sea of stars and stripes. Families hug and friends collect. Some exchange smiles; others shed tears.

Of course, the act of gaining citizenship — whether by birth or naturalization — doesn’t define “American-ness.” A person doesn’t have to be a citizen to view America as their home and American culture as their own. But those who do have citizenship are 18 or older, in good legal standing (incarcerated citizens, for example, are a different case) and bear particular responsibility: the right to vote.

Voting itself — whether in a local election, a midterm primary, or a U.S. presidential election — should never be considered a burden. Lack of passion for politics, polling place queues or displeasure with the offered candidates are not suitable excuses to opt out.

To vote is to claim agency — to use the freedoms subscribed to you by law as a source of empowerment within our democratic system (one we cannot take for granted, at that). To vote is to take hold of America’s pen and bubble in her story, her values, her attributes. To vote is to accept responsibility, not just for your needs, but for your family and for your community. To vote is to affect the fate of people who can’t vote — such as those on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or those too young to vote (but not too young to die in shootings at school).

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,” said Robert F. Kennedy, who passed away 50 years ago today. “But each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation.”

California’s June primary and the upcoming midterm elections in November are two events that give citizens a new chance to redirect America’s trajectory. We have a chance to vote for a more progressive America, a more inclusive America and a kinder America. In my view, Americans should want our country to be one that is admired around the world one that immigrants dream to live in and strive to succeed in.

Building this America is possible and creating it can be our generation’s legacy.

How do we start? One vote at a time.

Contact Danielle Miller at [email protected].