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Monday, April 24, 2006

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

An unnaturally smooth naturalization?


NEW YORK -- I became an American citizen on March 31. The steps for citizenship were simple and easy, and the process took an unexpectedly short time. I experienced neither "the law's delay" nor "the insolence of office."

In early October last year, my young lawyer friend filed an application for naturalization for me. A month later, I received a receipt of the application from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Though it said I should expect to hear about the date and place of my interview "within 540 days," a week later another notice came summoning me for fingerprinting. The date was December 1. The fingerprinting was followed by another notice -- this one giving the date and place of the interview: March 16. The interview did not take more than 10 minutes, or so it seemed, and the citizenship was granted on the spot. The ceremony took place two weeks later.

So the whole process took less than half a year. That length of time could exasperate some, I know, but I was in no hurry. After all, I arrived in this country nearly four decades ago. And the officials who dealt with me were kind and pleasant.

The first were the guards at the entrance to the building on Varick Street housing the INS office to which I was summoned for fingerprinting. Apparently Hispanics, they were apologetic and solicitous. I use crutches, the granite staircase right behind the revolving door was steep, and the correct entrance was elsewhere. The young, svelte, long-legged beauty of (maybe) Chinese extraction handling the fingerprinting equipment was quiet and self-effacing. INS or the Immigration and Naturalization Service was the name of the Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) before it was absorbed into the conglomerate Homeland Security Department.

The officer who interviewed me in mid-March at the USCIS in the Jacob Javits Federal Building, which is near the southern end of Manhattan, was also solicitous as she guided me to her office. I told her that I used to visit the building to use the Commerce Department library. During the interview she asked perhaps a dozen questions, in a more or less perfunctory manner, as my lawyer friend had predicted. She gave me no written tests. Then she said, "You've been approved. Congratulations!" As I rose, I was briefly overwhelmed.

There were some personal moments during the interview, if I may call them that. At one point, either because she had an accent or because she did not look like someone from Western Europe, I asked where she was from. Poland, she said. So I mentioned my "Polish niece," Aneta Glinkowska, and the vodka she brought for me from her "old country." She complimented me on my pronunciation of my niece's family name. She also wondered how l liked Polish vodka.

My time with her, in any case, did not give me a chance to glimpse the one thing I had associated with naturalization interviews: the different attitudes officers take to different applicants. Some years ago an English journalist who, being married to an American, decided to become an American himself, wrote about the unpleasantness he overheard in the next room. His own interviewer was polite, even deferential to him, but the one in the next room, who was testing someone of color whose English was far from fluent, was definitely not. She did not try to hide her irritation and contempt.

I was reminded of this when I translated a poem by Cheon Mihye not long before my own interview. Born to longtime Korean residents of Japan, Cheon decided to become a Japanese citizen when she married a Japanese. Her experience at the Japanese naturalization office was a replica of the Englishman's in America. Again, her own interviewer was kindly and considerate, but throughout the interview she heard beyond a thin wall the insolent voice of an officer interviewing an Asian woman whose Japanese was halting at best. But I did not glimpse anything comparable, perhaps largely because there were no interviews going on near my officer's room.

The naturalization ceremony two weeks later was held in the oak-paneled Ceremonial Courtroom of the brand-new building housing the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York. The tall, barrel-chested court officer, when my turn came, at once guided me to one of the leather-upholstered chairs in the front row, rather than to any of the wooden pews. Soon guided to the seat next to me was a middle-age Hispanic woman elegantly dressed in black, with a dark, round hat. During the last part of the ceremony the one who sat in her place was a young, stylishly dressed Englishman.

Receiving our documents and identifying each of us were six people: a young black woman coupled with a middle-age male Japanese-American (perhaps), a young Hispanic woman coupled with a middle-age Caucasian male, and a young Asian woman coupled with a Caucasian male of an indeterminate age. When the processing was over, the court officer asked us to give a hand to these six because, he said, they were paid so little.

Then, after some moments of hushed waiting, the bailiff announced the arrival of Chief Judge of the District Court Michael Mukasey. A smallish, white-haired man appeared and placed himself in the middle of a long, empty dais. The bailiff made us repeat the Oath of Allegiance after him. Then the judge gave a speech, recalling how his own ancestors came to this land 80 years ago. He then stepped down from his dais and shook hands with each of us as the bailiff called out our names, one by one, to hand each the certificate of naturalization. When I shook hands with the judge, I was once again briefly overwhelmed.

Out on the street in the unseasonably warm day that was March 31, did I wonder about the seeming disconnect between immigration policy debate and implementation in the United States? I do not recall, but I became an American citizen as huge, unprecedented waves of immigration-reform demonstrations were rising. It was a few years before I came here that the revolutionary Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the quota system by nationality and ethnicity. It has since altered the demographic face of the United States. Today this country admits about a million immigrants every year and allows more than half that number to naturalize.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.


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