When I was a young girl, I heard the family story of how my paternal grandmother became an American citizen. She had come to the United States from England when she was 18 years of age, and her naturalization happened long before I was born. Ancestors on my mother's side came from Sweden through Ellis Island, but my grandparents were both born here a short time later. And I really don't know how far back my paternal grandfather's ancestors went in this country. So family members becoming US citizens had not been a part of my experience.
Niko has been with us for quite some time. In September, it will be six years. As with any life-altering event, at times it seems like I can't remember when he wasn't here. Other days, his arrival seems recent, raw, and still new. Despite the years of hard things, of massive adjustment, of family forging, and of finding our way together, I will always remember the moment I first saw him walk through the swinging doors of the terminal at JFK airport in New York City - a little nine-year-old boy pulling the backpack-on-wheels that we had so carefully packed and sent him. We had so much to learn about each other, about how to begin to heal the years of trauma, even as we knew adoption itself would be one more layer of trauma. That learning continues, with love.
When Niko arrived on US shores, he was already legally our son. We took the current advice and re-adopted him here in America, which was for the sake of paperwork. However, coming into this country with an escort meant Niko had no proof of citizenship - he came in with a permanent resident card (which actually has green tones to it, hence the common name). We would need to acquire citizenship through yet another bureaucratic route, and we would also need more money - over $600.
Adoption is very expensive. God had provided - and we were grateful. But we didn't pursue citizenship then. We figured we would get to it one day. Then this past fall, word spread within the adoption community that the fee for adoption would double by the end of 2016. While we didn't have $600, we certainly didn't have $1170, so we prayed and God provided. We got the detailed forms completed, got Niko's passport-style picture taken, gathered and copied all the requested family documents, and sent it all in, special delivery. And then we forgot about it.
About two weeks ago, a letter came in the mail: we had our appointment at USCIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services). It would be the following Saturday at 10 a.m.
I tried not to panic, but Niko doesn't handle big public settings very well. And then I realized what I had read not long before - that once a child reaches 14 years of age, that child must repeat the Oath of Allegiance. The standard test for citizenship is waived for those who are naturalized due to their parents' citizenship (N-600), but this oath is required.
I looked up the oath, and marveled at its scope and power:
"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 had no idea how to communicate this to my 15 year old, who would be stuck at the first 'hereby.' I didn't tell him a whole lot about the oath, but we did talk about becoming a citizen. "Why I not just be where I'm from?" "You will always be 'where you're from,' that will never change. But this is about freedom, about ideas, about voting, about being an American." The part about voting intrigued him especially.
The morning of the appointment, the five of us headed down to Newark. Our oldest daughter had to work, but we sent her text updates. We were so concerned about finding the federal building, locating a parking garage, and getting through security, that we walked into the USCIS office forty minutes early. And so the wait began.
We were on the fifteenth floor, in a room with over a hundred people. Every couple of minutes, one of the eight employees behind a bank-teller style counter called out a name. I admired the ability to pronounce these names, as they came from so many different countries. All around us, people were waiting, playing with children, looking on their phones (despite the sign that said no cell phones), or speaking together in other languages.
About 11:00, Niko's name was called. He and I went to the front, and a kind worker asked a few questions, I showed him some ID, and we surrendered the green card. He then had Niko sign his name five different times on a couple of documents. The man handed Niko a small American flag, said 'Congratulations,' and told us to wait for the ceremony where Niko would receive the paper he had just signed.
We waited another hour, and then it happened - all those in our category were told it was finally our turn. We walked down the hall - and into a large, lovely room, with a wall of windows, all opening up on this beautiful day to show Newark below (this was the 15th floor, after all) and the entire New York City skyline: the Empire State building at midtown, the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, and I knew somewhere unseen down there and over a bit was Lady Liberty.
On one wall there was an immense flag (I later read that it had flown over the USS Saratoga in 1977), black and white framed photos of immigrants (maybe voting, or registering, I wasn't sure), the logo of US Homeland Security, a portrait photo (likely the new Homeland Security secretary, but I wasn't sure), a photo-op corner with a green silhouette of the State of Liberty and the words "Proud American," and a screen with all the social media tags for USCIS and #NewUSCitizen information.
A man opened the session by having all the young people sit in the middle, with their accompanying family members on the side sections. The person in charge played a video, then had everyone stand while they played The Star Spangled Banner (and had told them ahead of time to 'remove headgear, unless for religious purposes'). He also said that normally they play a message from the president to the group, but there is not yet a message done from the new president - and then another man came and spoke to the group.
This one was young and very engaging (though a microphone would have been a good idea). He began to ask the group questions from the test (the citizenship test has 100 questions for study; I think every American should look at the online test and know the answers) - and after two questions (one on who wrote the Federalist Papers, as an example), and some bewildered young people, he said 'You don't need to take the test - you are becoming a citizen because it's one of the many things your parents have done for you. Go right now and give them a hug, then come back to your seat!" Niko hurried back to us, looking all Mister Cool but clearly incredibly nervous underneath, and said to me, "Bring it on," before I hugged him and he scurried back.
The young man - a deputy something or other - asked the reassembled teens if they knew the nation's official motto: "In God We Trust." Then he asked if they knew the unofficial motto and its meaning: E Pluribus Unum - out of many, one. He asked if they could guess how many nations were represented by the 28 young people there. Turns out it was 16. He read aloud the names of the countries, and had them stand when their country was announced (yet another stressful moment for Niko, but he did it) - Canada, Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Haiti, Yemen, Algeria, Peru, Morocco, Congo - those are a few I remember.
He gave some announcements, such as how to get your passport after this, and about the need to be positive the info on the citizenship document was correct. "We can change it today for free. But if it has to be changed next week, or next month, or another other time, it will cost" over $500 - I forget the exact amount.
Later he had them stand again, told family members they could come to the front to take pictures of the group, and the group stood and raised their right hands. He spoke aloud (by memory) the oath, in phrases, and the group repeated it after him. It's a daunting oath, and a pretty serious and impressive thing to hear it spoken by twenty-eight young people.
Despite that, it was very moving. Then everyone in the room stood, turned to the flag, and gave the Pledge of Allegiance. At that point, I couldn't get any voice out, I just mouthed the words and felt the tears.
We returned to our seats, and the young man said to the teens, "I asked you before - what is the official motto of the United States?" "In God we trust." "What is the unofficial motto?" "E Pluribus Unum." "How many nations are represented here? Trick question!" Someone said 16, and he said thank you for that, but "No - the answer is one. You all are now American citizens, and you represent one country."
He called each young person by name to come up and receive their certificate. Then he said they could take pictures at the different spots, and reminded us to check the papers. Niko raced over to us, I gave him a hug, the others got fist bumps. Hannah and I looked at the certificate together, and we noticed a possible error, and so I went up to the young man and showed him the odd "Congo-Kinshasa" wording for his "Country of Birth." He said he'd seen that and wondered, and would take it and contact the State Department.
While we waited, we asked Niko about taking a picture. No, he said, just as we'd expected. But somehow, this time, we convinced him. Maybe it was seeing others his age taking pictures, maybe it was some final recognition that us saying 'this is a really important day' was sinking in, maybe it was the promise of a slushie, or some combination of all three. He surprised us by asking it to be in front of the flag, and Hannah took a picture of him.
More waiting, and finally the new document came, with Democratic Republic of Congo properly listed as his birthplace, more signing of his name, more thanks given to the young man, and we were off together, down the elevator and out into a breezy, sunny, blue-sky summer day.
It could have gone wrong in so many ways, from the very first realization of the financial urgency, to the requirement that non-picture-taking Niko go into a CVS for a passport photo, to the news that we had to go somewhere in a large city, for our private son to swear a public oath.
"So help me God." Words to remember - because He has helped us - us the nation, us the family, and we trust that He will continue. And now "We, The People" includes our fifteen-year-old son. As best we can, we will continue to teach him what this country means, its rights and responsibilities, its freedoms and its history. Happy Citizenship Day, Niko.