Sunday, January 23, 2005

Proud to Be an American

This past week, I was blessed and privileged to witness a once-in-a-lifetime event of historic significance. The ceremony was solemn from the oath through President Bush’s inspiring speech. The patriotic music filled me with so much national pride that it spilled out of my tear ducts. Speaking strictly for my family, we were profoundly stirred and transformed.

The day after the presidential inauguration, my husband became a U. S. citizen.

Along with 899 other immigrants on Friday afternoon in Los Angeles County, California, Luis exchanged his green card for the golden promise of the red, white and blue. They came from eighty different countries, we were told, of which the top five were:

5. Taiwan
4. Tie: Iran and Vietnam
3. Korea
2. The Philippines
1. Mexico

His naturalization took nearly four years, during which the INS became part of the new Department of Homeland Security. The extended delay after 9/11 cost Luis the opportunity to vote in the 2004 elections, a grave disappointment which he never belabored.

The location was a private country club, but the production was obviously a government affair. We were instructed to arrive no later than 1:00pm, although the ceremony began well after 2:00pm. Luis stood in a line that wound down the hill while we queued up on the hilltop with the other guests. I disdain cell phones, but I was thankful for his and mine throughout that interminable wait under the hot sun. Some nice folks behind us had done this before and I was able to relay their helpful information to Luis. I warned him that there was a Democrat Party voter registration booth placed prominently opposite the building’s entrance but none for the Republicans.

Applicants were seated first and the remaining chairs were claimed quickly by guests at the head of our line. We were routed to a small standing-room-only area in the aisle along one side of the enormous hall. I scanned the crowd, mentally willing Luis to make eye contact, when my son Chris said, "He’s right here." By the most marvelous coincidence, we were standing next to his row and he was seated second from our aisle. We were able to talk and take pictures before the ceremony commenced with the Pledge of Allegiance. He showed me his new citizenship kit, containing a small American flag, which he received from the INS coordinator for his group.

The officiating judge shared the story of his grandparents’ difficult immigration from Ireland. One speaker encouraged the applicants to fill out and submit the voter registration form to their group coordinator (take that, Democrats). Another speaker introduced one of the applicants, a young man who was given a seat of honor and grateful applause for his service in the U. S. Army in Afghanistan. The judge administered the oath of citizenship en masse to enthusiastic cheering, clapping, and waving of flags.

Then we watched a brief prerecorded welcome and congratulations from President Bush, followed by a picturesque video to the Lee Greenwood song, I’m Proud to Be an American, which elicited more cheers, applause and flag-waving. I looked around to see that many others were moved to tears as I was. Some among the crowd wore the expressionless look of a DMV customer. A young woman with a lovely voice sang an a cappella rendition of The Star Spangled Banner and the ceremony was adjourned.

Guests were excused and in due course a jubilant Luis joined us outside. He, who cannot abide crowds or long waits, proclaimed, "It was great, it was worth everything." The Luis I have known for five years is always reserved and circumspect in public, although normally a riotously funny chatterbox in private. Maybe that was the green card effect. Newly liberated, he was quick to indulge his right to free speech.

As we passed the Democrat booth, which had no traffic that I could detect, the workers called to Luis like carnival barkers on a slow day. "Hey, where are the Republicans?" he shouted back. "The Republicans should be here, too. That’s messed up!" He told us that, as they waited their turn to leave the hall, he complained about this inequity to his INS coordinator and fellow group members, including one whom he admonished for disparaging the ceremony. As we drove away, Luis joked that he wants to get a portable police light to slap on the top of his SUV so he can make spontaneous citizens’ arrests. What a kidder.

On Saturday we feted Luis with dinner and a cake, but the most poignant part of the celebration came shortly after the ceremony when he savored the full measure of the day with those who most appreciate how far he has traveled: his parents.

Bravo, my love! The best is yet to be.

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