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Mark Bennett Opinion

March 3, 2013

MARK BENNETT: After years of preparation, 60 immigrants will gather in Terre Haute on March 14 to pledge their allegiance to the United States of America

TERRE HAUTE — Homework can humble a parent.

Even for those who aced fifth-grade math a few (several) decades ago, the equations in a kid’s textbook may look like hieroglyphics to an adult who hasn’t done long division since John Travolta was a Sweathog. That request — “Can you help me with this problem?” — may trigger a headache and consume most of an evening, but the bonding time outweighs the frustrations.

And, that reintroduction to mathematics reminds us grownups of our own nights of erasing, and re-erasing, until the sheets of 3-ring binder notebook paper shred. We forget what it takes to be a student. Those parent-child homework sessions renew our appreciation for our own education.

On the afternoon of March 14, in a historic former federal courtroom in Terre Haute, 60 immigrants from across the planet will raise their right hands, pledge an oath of allegiance and become citizens of the United States. They have prepared for that role, American citizenship, in ways that some of us have not, or have forgotten. Many of us can’t comprehend the lengths they’ve gone to live in circumstances we often take for granted.

The local naturalization ceremony is a bit rare. Each year, the U.S. District Court Southern District of Indiana conducts 34 such events, primarily in Indianapolis, said court deputy clerk Amy McClellan. Terre Haute has been the site of a handful in recent years. The March 14 ceremony will unfold in the ornate, cavernous courtroom inside what is now the Indiana State University Scott College of Business, a massive stone structure that housed federal trials and proceedings from the Great Depression to the Great Recession.

Few of those past hearings over crimes and lawsuits featured the smiles and tears of joy expressed at a citizenship ceremony.

It would be refreshing for lifelong Americans to feel that civic euphoria.

“I think every U.S. citizen — born U.S. citizen — should witness a naturalization ceremony,” said Marilu Cabrera, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Chicago division, which covers Indiana.

Each ceremony includes an especially emotional moment for staffers of the USCIS and the federal courts, which jointly conduct the ceremonies.

Now in her 13th year on the job, Cabrera said, “I don’t know how many I’ve seen, but I am always moved to tears with every ceremony.” Recently, she invited a tough, veteran, Chicago-city-politics-tested journalist to a naturalization event. It included a Holocaust survivor from Poland who’d spent 50 years trying to find and reunite with his sister, who’d settled in the U.S. after World War II. The siblings sat side by side as the brother took his Oath of Allegiance. The reporter wept.

“He said, ‘Thank you so much for inviting me. That was incredible,’” Cabrera recalled.

McClellan mentioned another familiar scene.

“One thing that always touches me is someone who is dressed in military uniform taking the oath,” McClellan said. “Here is someone who has risked their life to fight on our behalf becoming an American citizen.”

That Oath of Allegiance contains a passage that moves Doria Lynch, outreach coordinator for the federal court in Indianapolis. In its first paragraph, immigrants renounce “all allegiance and fidelity” to the country they once called home. “I don’t think most American citizens are aware of what these new citizens are doing,” Lynch said. “They are renouncing all allegiance and fidelity to their homeland. It’s a very impactful statement.”

She’s seen men wearing suits of red, white and blue. Parents bring children dressed in those USA colors. Others show up in the clothes of their culture. Most have waited five years or more for this day. The oldest new citizen receives a U.S. flag that has flown over the Capitol. The youngest recites the Pledge of Allegiance. A representative of the Daughters of the American Revolution hands each participant a table-top flag.

At one point in the ceremony, before the soon-to-be citizens take their oath, the U.S. attorney calls the roll of their names. Many state their country of origin. India, Mexico and Central and South American nations top the diverse list. “In a sense, it’s sort of a mini-Olympics ceremony, because we have people from all over the globe,” McClellan said.

The day marks the final step toward naturalization. That process is “not easy,” Lynch said. “It’s fraught with frustrations. It tests people’s patience. It can be expensive.”

In the most common path to citizenship, a person holds a green card (as a legal resident) for five years, although many seek citizenship through parents or a spouse in the U.S. The application costs $680. (Of course, if an applicant hires an attorney to help, the cost grows.) They must pass a criminal background check. They have two chances to pass an in-person test of their ability to speak, read and write English, and their knowledge of U.S. history and government civics. If they’ve ever been married, divorced or widowed, or undergone a name change, they’ll need verifying documents. If they’ve traveled abroad since becoming a permanent resident, they’ll need documentation. And a passport. And tax returns from the past five years. And two photos.

(Also, they must be of “good moral character.” And, in addition to their rights, they accept the responsibilities of citizenship, including to “respect the rights, beliefs and opinions of others,” “participate in your local community” and “pay income taxes honestly and on time.” Reminders for us all.)

After fulfilling the five-year residency requirement, the average citizenship process lasts six months, Cabrera said, “but each case is different.

“This is not something given away for free,” she added. “This is important and significant.”

The civics and history test reflects that significance. It can humble a lifelong citizen.

Here’s a peek at a few questions (which can also be found online at …

~ The Federalist Papers supported passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers. (Answer: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and “Plubius” — a Roman pseudonym used by the authors)

~ When was the Constitution written? (1787)

~ Name one of the two longest rivers in the U.S. (Missouri, Mississippi)

~ Does the judicial branch review laws, explain laws, resolve disputes or decide if a law goes against the Constitution? (All of the above)

~ Which right is only for U.S. citizens — freedom of religion, attending public school, running for federal office, or freedom of speech? (Running for federal office)

More than 90 percent of citizenship applicants pass the test, Cabrera explained.

Obviously, they do their homework.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or


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