It’s much nicer being on set than in the usual flash studio. In the flash studio I’m sitting alone, struggling to hear through an earpiece as I talk to a camera lens. On set there’s no earpiece and I’m talking to a human. That’s much nicer and more like real life, unless you’re completely mental.
It’s a shame the segment was only three minutes long because I could have told some great immigration & naturalization stories. In fact, I could fill a whole hour show with nothing but insight and complaining. Alas, time was short and before I knew it the floor manager was signaling that I had only a minute left. I was determined to get the “5 Years To Many” photo on there because I was appalled that such a grammatical error not only made it to the embroidery stage, but actually got walked down the streets of San Francisco. Thanks to zombietime.com for the photo and Val in MD for telling me it existed.
Read on if you want some back-story on the immigration and naturalization process.
It began on December 18th, 2001. That’s when the papers were sent. It ended on April 4, 2008.
Near the end of the ordeal, you’re summoned to an interview. The point of the interview is to make sure you’re still legitimately married, know passable English and were able to quickly memorize some U.S. history.
Naturally they scheduled her interview for right after the holidays when we were out of town. We had to reschedule for a date in February.
During the interview she was asked the same five questions I asked Glenn on his show. They came from a pool of 100 possible questions, most of which are fairly straightforward and, in my opinion, easy. The toughest one asks how many representatives are in Congress. The absolute stupidest one asks you the name of the form you file to apply for citizenship (N-400).
Her English test consisted of having her write “I am proud to become an American citizen.”
The interviewer demanded further proof that we were married solely because we didn’t have a joint bank account. We had one years back but switched banks and didn’t bother setting another one up because I handle the bills. So, despite the fact that we had children and had already proven this in the past in order to get a Green Card, we suddenly needed more “proof.” We’re both convinced that it was more about making us jump through hoops for the hell of it one final time.
My wife was handed a document stating that we had to provide three years of joint tax returns (which they already had from the 2001 Green Card application) among several other things. We mailed those off and weeks later a letter arrived inviting us to the naturalization ceremony: 9:00 a.m. in downtown New York.
There is no mention of the fact that the proceedings would take 3.5 hours.
In fact, they say you can bring the kids. If you’d told me I’d be wrestling with a 13-month old on my lap for that length of time, I’d have made other plans, hired a baby sitter. Anything. We were under the impression – the terribly wrong impression – that you’d show up, have a little yadda-yadda, get sworn in and be on your way. Fools we were.
We arrived bright and early. 500 Pearl Street is a courthouse, and the security is tight. The line backed up so that people, myself included, found themselves standing inside the revolving door with nowhere to go as people to the rear kept trying to force it.
When you finally entered you found yourself faced with three possible line choices and no idea which one was the correct one. Once it got chaotic enough the guards started ordering people back outside into the rain. We barely made the cut.
Naturally the line we chose went the slowest. You get the full security treatment and then some. Mobile phones and cameras are taken; you’re given a token to reclaim them. I was under the impression that your spouse becoming a citizen was a photo opportunity. Apparently not here. They even confiscated the toy phone we’d brought to occupy the baby.
Upon entering the Constance Baker Motley Jury Assembly Room, we were assigned seats. A USCIS official informed us that because we had kids with us we’d be processed first. That sounded great. We were seated next to another family. All our kids played together. We were happy.
A woman walked by, chatting on her phone. Apparently their mobile phone confiscation policy was not thoroughly enforced.
My wife and the New Zealander next to us were called up and processed first. They each returned with some papers, a copy of the U.S. Constitution and a history booklet. It was 9:20. Could that be the end? No. The gentleman told us we could go upstairs to the cafeteria. He said to return at 11:00 for the oath. As we headed to the cafeteria my brother arrived – he’d been trapped in the security line. If he’d arrived two minutes later he’d have been wandering around looking for us while we lounged upstairs – unable to contact us because they confiscated our phones.
For an hour and a half we got to know the New Zealander, her kids and her husband. We ate mediocre, reasonably-priced cafeteria food (kudos to the coffee) and mingled with lawyers. We entertained the 13-month old as best we could. We’d stupidly forgotten to bring his bottle or pacifier. We’d stupidly thought this would go fast. We were also approaching his nap time.
I noticed someone had dropped their U.S. Constitution on the floor. Hopefully by accident.
We returned to the crowd at 11:00. They were still processing people. Bad sign. As that went on, one official entertained the front half of the room. It sounded good – they were all laughing, but no one in the back could hear anything being said. The baby was done. He no longer wanted to spend time in the Constance Baker Motley Jury Assembly Room. He made that very clear. My brother and I took turns keeping him occupied. Keys? Bottle cap? Pen? Please?
At 11:15 we were told that the judge was headed down any moment. In an effort to keep us all occupied, the USCIS official told more jokes and explained what to expect when the judge arrived. Those of us in the back still could only make out 30% of what was being said. At one point he read off the countries that people in the room hailed from. I heard Greece, Mexico, Haiti, and Honduras. There was a New Zealander next to us. My wife represented Poland. Someone shouted “TNT!” which we eventually learned meant “Trinidad and Tobago.”
At 11:35 we were told the judge was on her way. More shtick that we couldn’t hear ensued. At one point the official got on the P.A. and announced he was looking for “Mister Tupac Shakur.” That got a few laughs. I wondered if he did the same routine with each batch of American recruits.
The judge arrived close to noon. She had a microphone which helped us know what was actually going on. She welcomed the new immigrants, chatted about the great country and the importance of immigration in building it, hoped folks would obey the laws on the books. Unfortunately the 13-month old was having none of this. He was done. As we approached the oath – the big finale, the waterworks began. I had no bottle, no pacifier. I’m a big American dummy.
I wanted to take a picture but forgot they’d confiscated my camera. With the oath over, it was time to pick up the certificate. There were 300 people there. They started calling their names.
I left the room and stood outside with the 13-month old in a backpack. The backpack puts him behind me at ear level. This allows his high-decibel screams to go directly into my brain. It’s very relaxing. The New Zealander exited with her certificate and family in tow. She’d been processed at the very beginning with my wife. It would be safe to assume my wife would be the second new citizen to exit the chamber. Right? Right? Wrong.
For 20-plus minutes Mr. Shriek pierced my eardrums as we waited and watched humanity pass us and walk by a voter registration booth on their way out. Posters invited people to register in English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.
Here’s the thing: If you can’t understand “Register to Vote” in English, how can you possibly read and understand what the issues are and what the candidates’ positions are? And why bother making folks take an English “test” part of the citizenship requirements if you’re going to print up posters in their native tongues that encourage them to select a leader? I’m no Pat Buchanan but I think we’re being a little too accommodating.
In an effort to make use of our time waiting, my brother took our tokens and went off to reclaim our cameras and phones. He returned with them a few minutes later. Within seconds a guard was on top of us.
“What are you doing with those? You can’t have that here! No phones, no cameras!”
My brother mentioned that he’d picked them up from the security folks and that we were leaving. The guard stayed on message and upped the volume. The baby screamed in my ear. The three-year old wandered off. My brother took issue with the guard’s tone and wound up getting escorted away. I assumed he’d been arrested. I was still waiting for my wife. It was very relaxing.
She was the second to last new citizen to leave the chamber. 12:30 p.m.
We bolted out of the building where my brother was waiting – fortunately not in handcuffs. He tried to make it a Kodak moment. The baby was hysterical, the toddler crying, I was frazzled, and after 6 years, 3 months and 18 days, my wife was American.