Beyond the Curtain of July 4th Naturalization Ceremonies
As happens every July 5th, tomorrow’s newspapers will carry reports of attractively diverse groups of immigrants naturalizing as U.S. citizens in uplifting ceremonies, flags waving, with predictable but heartfelt welcomes from judges and elected officials. This Independence Day ritual is perhaps the only public relations play of the federal government’s immigration agencies that seems to work. It bears out all our longings that citizenship hold a sacred place as a source of national pride and renewal.
But the uplifting July 4th ceremonies are not the norm. More than half of all naturalizing immigrants take their oaths of citizenship in administrative procedures at local offices of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, successor to the old INS.
The surroundings are drab, often on the same hallways as hearing rooms in which less fortunate immigrants fight deportation. Low-level USCIS bureaucrats preside. As applicants stand in line to finalize their paperwork (after which they receive a 102-page pamphlet on U.S. history and a cheaply-produced American flag), the space takes on the feel of a waiting room. The backdrop has all the transformative feel of a DMV.
Which it might as well be, for many of the participants. In their Sunday best and accompanied by families, the event has clearly retained its traditional significance for some. One has to feel a little sorry for these citizens-momentarily-to-be, given the tawdriness of the official reception.
But others by all appearances might as well be signing up for their drivers licenses. And who can blame them. The application process leading up to this day is slow and expensive. Application backlogs now stretch out as long as two years. In August 2007, the application fee almost doubled, to $675. For an immigrant family of four, that’s more than $2500. Those July 4th ceremonies would look a lot less dignified with money orders in the picture. And query whether applicants are getting good value on their dollar.