Gearing Up For Tonight’s Debate, Quelling Feelings Of Helplessness

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

On Citizenship Day, I had the opportunity to report on Ellis Island’s largest naturalization ceremony, what organizers told me was the Super Bowl of Citizenship. Timed perfectly to the centennial of the National Park Service and the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, this historic swearing-in was coordinated with two simultaneous events at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in Washington D.C. During the week-long celebration at other national monuments, 38,000 new citizens would likewise pledge themselves “to perform works of national importance,” a phrase unknown to many life-long Americans like myself whose roots are not Native American.

The ceremony was moving. When I re-played my recordings, I wept as 298 new citizens recited the Oath of Allegiance in the Great Hall. If you’re a garden-variety American and occasional Walmart shopper like me, you might want to bone up on the Oath before tonight’s debate. Here it is:

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, of 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 noncombatant service in the Armed Forces 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.

I got this story idea by attending smaller ceremonies each Friday at a downtown courthouse. Over and over, I was struck at how well new citizens knew our Constitution and geography. In a time when 10 percent of college graduates believe Judge Judy is a Supreme Court Justice, I wanted to know what it’s like to consciously choose the United States over another land. In my visits to a Lower Manhattan court, I learned about the ceremony on Ellis Island. Excitedly, I pitched this article to the New York Observer, a paper owned by Trump’s son-in-law, whose deputy editor said “yes” and assigned an amazing photographer. Together, we followed several new citizens from the time they got on the ferry to the moment they held official papers.

It was humbling.

Immigration will likely be a hot topic tonight in the presidential debate. I can’t control November’s outcome. But I can know more about my country. And I can learn more about the systems that govern this great nation. I started by ordering a pocket Constitution. And by putting a copy of the Oath of Allegiance on my living room mirror.

Here are some of my own pics:

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It’s The Super Bowl Of Naturalizations!

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

When taxi driver Richard Valdez boarded a ferry to Ellis Island last Friday, he filed past scores of tourists for what appeared to be a VIP wedding. As one of 298 candidates representing 53 countries, Valdez would soon participate in the Super Bowl of naturalization ceremonies, the largest in the island’s history.

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.

Richard Valdez on the day he became an American citizen.

Nearby, Verna Genus, 66, who hailed from Jamaica, put Betsy Ross to shame in a white jacket, blue top, red lace skirt and crimson heels.

“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.