Taking the Ultimate Plunge--Citizenship

My French daughter-in-law, Jacqueline, is now an American citizen.

We went with her to the naturalization ceremonies the other day in a huge hall at the Convention Center. There were 7,000 people in the hall--4,000 candidates for citizenship and 3,000 friends and relatives.

It was a long afternoon. The routine was directed by a disembodied voice that came over a loudspeaker.

I was sitting in the audience with my wife, our son Doug (Jackie's husband), and a friend and co-worker of hers named Barbara van der Kolk.

The mass ceremony took 2 1/2 hours.

It had taken Jackie 25 years to apply for citizenship, mainly, I think, because she hated to give up her French citizenship.

But she has become thoroughly American. She doesn't understand baseball or football, but that is not required. She drives like an American and her English is excellent, though still accented.

Not long ago, she was talking with a Frenchwoman and the Frenchwoman said, "You speak excellent French, for an American."

That may have been when she decided to go for it. Also, the French consul told her she could have dual citizenship.

But when she and hundreds of others in her group were taking the oath of citizenship, there was a phrase demanding that she renounce her loyalty to any foreign prince or potentate or country. She said she wept, but said, "I do."

At that moment my wife whispered to me, "Jackie won't like that."

I suppose Jackie will always choke up when "Le Marseillaise" is played, but that won't compromise her loyalty to the United States.

She has become, perhaps not thoroughly, but profoundly, Americanized. She is a very successful real estate saleswoman with Jon Douglas in Glendale. She is especially noted for her open houses, at which she has been known to serve French hors d'oeuvres and champagne.

Jackie has only a high school education, but considering she had to pass a test on U.S. history, she probably knows it better than I do.

At one point in the extended ceremony, we were asked to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance and then to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner." My wife wept as she sang the national anthem. She says she can't help it. I don't weep, but I have a hard time hitting the high notes. I always have to switch keys.

After the ceremony, there was a long wait while the new citizens received their papers. Then we went to lunch.

Jackie had said, "I want to go to a French restaurant." Evidently she had not entirely renounced her loyalty. We agreed that Taix (pronounced Tex) would fill the bill.

A woman with a strong French accent waited on us, which seemed to reassure Jackie that the restaurant was a part of France. I ordered a bottle of champagne and chose one from the Loire Valley, where Jackie comes from.

A part of the oath of citizenship was the assurance that one would bear arms to protect the United States, if need be. I asked Jackie if indeed she would be willing to bear arms. She said, "Of course," and I think she meant it. Her son has just finished two years in the U.S. Army.

There was a strongly patriotic air in the great hall that day. A great American flag hung above the podium. By measuring it against a man who stood below, my wife calculated the flag was at least 12 feet by 18 feet.

At one point, the speaker asked the new citizens to wave their flags for Channel 7. Each had been given a tiny American flag on a stick. They waved them furiously.

Later I asked my daughter-in-law if she had waved her flag. She said, "Of course, Mr. Smith." I had thought that now she was a citizen, she would stop calling me Mr. Smith. Not once, in 25 years, had she called me Jack. Evidently that was a part of her heritage she was not willing to give up.

A member of the Immigration and Naturalization Service told us that 5,000 new citizens had taken the oath that morning, making it 9,000 for the day.

"This is just a modernized, sanitized Ellis Island," Doug said.

The INS man said the new citizens represented 115 nations. One million are admitted annually. Most come from Mexico, followed by Vietnam, the Philippines, El Salvador and Iran.

Before the visitors were dismissed from the ceremony, a screen was lowered and a brief patriotic film was shown, with a chorus singing "God Bless the U.S.A."

As the new citizens left the great hall, they were asked to register to vote. Jacqueline said she intended to register, for sure, but she didn't have time right now.

It's just as well. I believe she's a Republican.

* Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.

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