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Scenes at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis: Why these immigrants want to be U.S. citizens

Officially an American, Deepa Mathur shows her certificate of American citizenship standing in the Courthouse with husband Anurag Mathur and their children, Aryan, 11, and Avika, 5.
MinnPost photo by Cynthia Boyd
Officially an American, Deepa Mathur shows her certificate of U.S. citizenship standing in the courthouse with husband, Anurag Mathur, and their children, Aryan, 11, and Avika, 5.

A small American flag — broad stripes and bright stars waving in a little girl's hand — catches my eye. It's not, after all, a typical sight on a wintery day in downtown Minneapolis, so I ask her mother: "Excuse me, are you going to the naturalization ceremony?''

Yes, yes, we are, Deepa Mathur of Eagan tells me proudly as we walk toward the United States Courthouse Wednesday, I to document a ceremony that marks 72 immigrants' transition from resident to U.S. citizen, she to happily take that wide step.

As life passages go, this is major, the denial of allegiance to one's native land and instead a solemn pledge to support the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, to accept both its obligations and freedoms, the obligation to bear arms in the country's defense and the freedom and privilege to vote.

In the courthouse, through metal detectors, we head for the 15th floor courtroom.

Here, like those huddled masses passing the Statute of Liberty are dozens of immigrants and some refugees from more than 30 countries — including Egypt and France, Bulgaria and Canada, Mexico and Somalia, Russia and Uruguay— all waiting to become U.S. citizens, all wishing to officially join the American community.

"This is such an emotional day and such an important day, after 10 and one-half years to be able to say we're American,'' Deepa, 38, a microbiologist, tells me with great sincerity.

Along to mark the occasion are her husband, Anurag Mathur, and their two children, Aryan, 11, and Avika, 5. Anurag took the oath of citizenship Nov. 19 in St. Paul, the two separated by some bureaucratic act from raising their right hands in allegiance to this country at the same time.

Why, I ask, do they put aside their natural ties to their native India to become Americans?

"To be a true part of America, to be in the true fabric of America, to be able to vote, to work,'' explains Anurag, a 40-year-old software engineer who came to the United States for his job but now calls it his homeland.

Line applicants
Deepa joins a solemn line of citizenship applicants filing into the courtroom for one last check of their citizenship papers before being assigned a seat. A video plays a stream of American music and images across a movie screen: the Statute of Liberty, Abraham Lincoln, the White House.

Then, Judy Stuthman, co-president of the League of Women Voters Minnesota, comes to a mike at the front of the room to provide a welcome and the opportunity to register to vote.

"By registering this morning your name will already be at the polling place next November," Stuthman tells them. "We hope you become active participants in the political process. Democracy does work best when we're all involved," she says as she and colleague Pat Harlan-Marks, also a volunteer, pass out Minnesota Voter Registration cards.

For the last 15 years League members have done this, registering 95 percent to 99 percent of the new Americans at citizenship ceremonies around the state, says Stuthman. Last year the tally was 8,000.

"The league is all about engaging people in civic engagement. Certainly for an organization born out of women getting the right to vote you want to see other people getting that right, too,'' Stuthman tells me.

The will-be Americans sit quietly in their assigned seats, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Behind them, in the audience are dozens more marking the august occasion, including Fatuma Adam, a foreign language interpreter from Ethiopia who became an American citizen six years ago, here to witness a cousin's swearing in. Small children talk and wiggle in parents' arms, with little understanding of the import of this moment.
Then, after years of waiting, the event begins, passing in a wash of patriotism and heartfelt words. Aretha Franklin, taped at President Obama's inauguration, sings the National Anthem.

U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery dressed in her long black robes, welcomes them, confiding that the naturalization ceremony is "one of my favorite things to do.''

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer attests to these applicants' good moral character and their legal residency. They've passed the requirements for citizenship, he says, asking Montgomery to administer the oath.

The applicants raise small U.S flags, a gift of their adoptive country, and later their right hands. They pledge to surrender past political allegiances and support the Constitution and laws of the United States. They end with a declaration: "Today I am a citizen of the United States of America, so help me God.''

Individually, they are a rainbow of different national threads, the largest numbers, 15, from Somalia and 10 from Ethiopia. With the oath, they are one multi-colored American quilt.

Around the room cameras click, family and friends recording the occasion for posterity, an action otherwise prohibited in courtrooms. Anurag Mathur takes video.

Pledge of Allegiance  
"This is a wonderful country, but not a perfect country,'' says Montgomery. "I hope you will be active in your citizenship," she says, telling them they now have the right to vote, that they should take that right seriously by becoming well-informed on issues and candidates.

Voices throughout the room join in the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the judge hands a certificate of citizenship to each new American, extending her hand in congratulations.

President Obama appears on the video screen. "This is now officially your country,'' he tells them, with all the rights and responsibilities involved. "In America, no dream is impossible.''

The ceremony ends with the strains of Lee Greenwood singing "I'm proud to be an American,'' and the judge kindly offering to stay for those who want her to pose for photos.

Others pass out of the courtroom, the new Americans pausing to hand in voter registration cards to League representatives.

In the lobby over celebratory cookies, two brothers from Mexico, Ivan and Juan Mendoza, smile broadly as they contemplate their new status. "We want to be here for the rest of our lives,'' says Ivan, 18, who works part time at a pizzeria while attending Hennepin Technical College.

Elias Mamma
MinnPost photo by Cynthia Boyd
Elias Mamma

Elias Mamma, a chemist from Ethiopia who now lives in New Brighton, is dressed in a fine, checkered wool jacket, an American flag peeking happily from his pocket.

Why, I ask him, did you become an American? "This is the only land where you can practice your basic human rights to speak, to vote,'' Mamma tells me.

As for Deepa Mathur, the woman from India who is now a naturalized American? "We have the best of both worlds now,'' she says, explaining that means both her heritage and a better future and many opportunities for her children.

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Comments (4)

Beautiful ceremony. I imagine my grandparents pride at acheiving citizenship.
I noticed that the article stated that INS must verify the legal status before citizenship can be obtained. So illegal aliens are not part of this process?

That is my understanding, that they these people were "legal residents,'' according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Officer.

To apply for citizenship, you have to show your green card (and surrender it at the ceremony) and among other things prove u have live in America continuously for 5 years.

You can't just show up with a Drivers License and ask for citizenship. There are a lot of checks.

"This is the only land where you can practice your basic human rights to speak, to vote," ...

It's amazing to me to see how amazing this country looks to newcomers. I hope it can always be everything he describes.