Beyond the Curtain of July 4th Naturalization Ceremonies

by Peter Spiro

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.

17 Responses

  1. Response…W/ever!  You have to pay processing fees to naturalize in most countries, and most other countries have economic, professional, and educational requirements for non-refugee immigrants that exceed those of the United States.  Naturalized citizens do quite well in the US. Happy 4th – I’m on my way to Town Point Park in Norfolk, VA to witness 66 active duty military servicepersons take their citizenship oaths.

  2. The $2500 in fees is far outweighed by the gained benefits.

  3. I was naturalized in 2004, so I don’t know how things have changed since, but I really liked the ceremony. It was held in Arlington, VA in March and we were about 160 from over 50 countries. They acknowledged every country we were from, had a little music video and a message from Bush. We all received our certificates and a little flag and got to have our picture taken. Many of us were crying. It’ll always be a good memory for me, but I also am very glad that I don’t have to deal with the INS anymore

  4. My naturalization ceremony in Detroit was low key but dignified. I remember being fascinated by the number of Canadians in the crowd.
    This spring, however, seeing what’s happening, I have been questioning the wisdom of taking the plunge for citizenship since I lost my old (former commie) country citizenship in the process. I’m gathering the paperwork to re-apply for it.

  5. Response…Mr Spiro, your last sentence should win the prize for irony.  Immigration USED TO BE about whether the country recieving the applicants was getting good value for it’s citizenship. Now it’s a game of what ethnic minority we most need to enhance our “diversity”.  It’s time we enforced a rational end-game to whom we allow in.

  6. Response…Dear Mr. Spiro: Like marriage, naturalization is ill served by trying to put a price tag on it, no matter how good the Nobel-Prize-for-spitting-on-Geo. W.-winning economist’s pricing formula is. The pesky intangibles remain. E.g. being able to live in a country whose Constitution does not require a section 239 whereby any Prez who tries to extend his term is automatically canned because of the country’s bitter experience with presidents who want to stick around without those irksome elections. Or a nation where protesters can wear green to protest another presidential election without getting shot and becoming famous via YouTube.

    Fortunately,  OPINIO JURIS does not have a rating feature for posts, only comments. The test of the marketplace is only for those of us without tenure.

    Sincerely yours,
    Gregory Koster
    (not of CUNY)

  7. I think excitement varies by the circumstances of the person. My mom wasn’t hugely excited by it, because she finally got around to getting her citizenship after having lived in the US for 38 years. To her, the “becoming American” part was important, and that had happened much earlier: when she learned English, adapted to American culture, became interested in American politics, raised children here, returned to her home country periodically to find herself feeling more and more like the U.S. rather than her country of origin was her home, etc. From that perspective, the citizenship paperwork done years later was just the official recognition that she was “really” American, but didn’t itself confer anything cultural or sacred. That is, becoming part of the American Nation is what’s important, and that’s something for which legal citizenship is at best a proxy.

  8. I was really excited to get my citizenship because I don’t know what other country would accept me for my Monty Python humor. Well ok England perhaps.

  9. Immigration is a privilege, not a right, and it’s a seller’s market dispensing that privilege.   If immigrants find the fees  a little high or the official naturalization surroundings a little drab then I’d say they’re welcome to reconsider their migration choices.

  10. You think that legal immigrants pay too much in fees?  Want to do something about it?  Tell Congress that legal immigrants shouldn’t have to subsidize state governments.  The National Governors Association is supporting a bill, called PASS ID, that requires USCIS to provide electronic citizenship confirmations to the states for free.  Since USCIS has to survive on the fees it charges, who will pay for these ‘free’ services?  Right, legal immigrants will just have to pay more.  Because legal immigrants have more money than California these days?  Well, actually that may be true, but it still isn’t fair.

  11. When I was accepted for legal immigration, the consul invited me into his office and gave me both congratulations and a kind but firm lecture on taking advantage of the opportunities of the US, and a request that I look at nationalization as soon as available to me so I could fully participate in the country I had chosen to live in.  It was a short speech but genuinely heartfelt.  I’ve never forgotten it.
    My nationalization was at a bulk affair in San Francisco and much less inspiring, especially the carefully selected “representational group” of immigrants on the stage, which included zero white males and a single, sad-looking American flag.  Only a few people around me actually recited the oath, whether out of disinterest or inability to understand English, I don’t know.
    Still, it was important to me.

  12. Response…The problem for most rednecks is that new US citizens. who were immigrants to begin with and may still speak with a funny accent, are actually better educated, more motivated and thus bound to do better in the labor force. No wonder this leads to resentment on some quarters but at the end of the day we will all benefit for their contribution. 

  13. Good post; although I don’t see how you think $675 (for a family of four) is an egregious amount to charge new immigrants. If you look at the potential benefits (education, job opportunities, etc.), they far outweigh potential costs over the long-term. I don’t see why taxpayers should subsidize immigrants coming in when there is a waiting list showing robust demand for such services. Perhaps instead of merely critizing , you should propose actual solutions to this seemingly inconsequential problem.

  14. I had the privilege of giving remarks at a non-Independence Day naturalization ceremony in 2006.  Four-hundred-thirty-four new Americans were made citizens in the drab and “waiting room”-like surroundings of . . . Boston’s Faneuil Hall.  See to learn what I’m talking about.

    I don’t have statistics on how many ceremonies are given in places like Faneuil Hall.  Or a DMV-like venue.  Or in the deserts of Iraq, for that matter.  Or at Walter Reed.  Or at Disneyland.  But I hope — and my conversations with people bear this out — that even when ceremonies are held in different surroundings, the momentousness of the occasion is not lost on those who have made the choice to become Americans, their families, and their friends.

    CIS has to support itself; that’s how Congress designed it.  The new fee rule raises the price of naturalization to (almost) CIS’s cost in providing it.  And two years–time during which the aspiring citizen is authorized to live and work in the U.S.–is too long to wait?  As for the “value proposition” of becoming a citizen, I’ll let the naturalized readers of your post let you know what they think of that.

  15. Is it expensive enough? Maybe it should be $500 cash + $1500 in a tax lien?

  16. While so many bytes are spent worrying as to the fees of legal immigrants, it’d worth mentioning that most illegal immigrants need pay nothing, their children are automatically citizens by virtue of birth.

    If $675 is a large enough amount to be a burden to said immigrant, they will likely be eligible for social services afterwards worth more than the $675 fee.

    I find the delays and red tape more obnoxious, myself.

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