A native of the Dominican Republic, Valdez, 26, relished postcard views of New York Harbor under a cyan sky. Tall and athletic, he wore a navy sports jacket with brown elbow patches. To quicken his long commute from the Bronx, he brought Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez’ novel about love at first sight. Like many on the ferry, Valdez came to the United States for better opportunities.
Unlike most other new citizens, he stood alone. His grandmother back home could not witness the day when he pledged himself “to perform work of national importance.” In a few hours, he would be an American with the responsibility of jury duty and the right to vote in a heated presidential election.
“I’m like the flag,” she remarked. With her braids piled high, she rattled off answers from her citizenship test in a heavy Caribbean
accent: “There are tree branches of government…The Speaker of the House is Paul Ryan.” Her son, Kirk Genus, 38, would also be sworn in. “I have never voted in my entire life, and I feel great,” said Kirk, who supports Hillary Clinton. Together, mother and son strode toward registration tables in the Great Hall, the cathedral-like space that once processed 5,000 immigrants a day.
This setting, with its relics and ghosts, moved Robert Katzmann, chief judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. His Russian grandmother came through Ellis Island.
“I admire new citizens,” Katzmann said before presiding over the ceremony. “I like seeing the joy on the faces. Witnessing the tears of their family members is always emotional. I think of it in terms of my own forebearers and their stories of sacrifice, service and patriotism.”
As the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany, Katzmann helped found Immigrant Justice Corps, a program providing legal assistance to non-citizens fighting deportation. Today, an IJC client would be sworn in as a citizen, a victory for the nonprofit organization.
After a presentation of colors and the National Anthem, candidates rose when they heard their various homelands announced. Among the first to stand at attention was Xinjie Quan, 24, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, who emigrated from China and wore military fatigues. When the emcee announced the Dominican Republic, a large contingent moved to its feet—cheers ricocheting off the high, vaulted ceiling. Valdez was among them, raising his right hand.
I have no doubt that the spirit of liberty will thrive with you as citizens,” Katzmann told the beaming crowd. “To become a citizen, you passed every test. And as polls show, you know more about our Constitution and government than most native-born Americans. Because of your personal histories, you have a special feeling for freedom…You will keep this country great. You will make it better as you assume the responsibility of citizenship.”
After the ceremony, Verna Genus continued sharing a stream of impressive trivia from her citizenship studies, even after she and her son held their official paperwork to secure them to U.S. soil. “There are 13 original colonies,” she shouted. “And the longest rivers are the Missouri and the Mississippi.”
Valdez had fewer words. “I feel like an American now,” he said.
This article first appeared in the New York Observer.