Early last month, Setu Pariyar became a naturalized American citizen. A 30-year-old native of Nepal, she was one of 10,000 people--and one of only two from her small Himalayan kingdom--participating in ceremonies in a massive hall at the L.A. Convention Center.
As Setu's husband, I felt like a participant as well. I had seen her through a rocky process that had taken more than eight years. Now, we had won, victorious in a war against red tape, lawyer's fees and anxiety.
It had started in Kathmandu, where we first requested a fiancee visa for her through the American Embassy. We were denied. (The embassy was not convinced of the validity of our relationship, even though we'd been involved for three years, ever since we'd met in her homeland.) We thought our dream of a happy life together might never come true.
Our next step was tricky: Our attorney advised Setu to apply for a simple tourist visa and said we should get married while she was in this country--a practice the INS frowns on, but one that is not uncommon. Once wed, we still faced years of wading through forms, obtaining testimonials and sitting through long interviews. Eventually, the INS granted Setu permanent residency. Sometimes love does conquer all.
The United States naturalizes a whopping 1 million new citizens annually--a number that the INS says is equal to all the new citizenships each year in the rest of the world. Local ceremonies are held about every two months. The next ones are Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. About 5,000 will be naturalized at each.
It's quite a show. The energy level is tremendous as the citizens-to-be file into the hall with their families and friends. Dozens of languages are being spoken. There is a great deal of crying, flag-waving and pageantry. Many people wear their Sunday best, including clothes from their native countries. The photo ops might not rival those at the Oscars, but for a weekday in downtown L.A., they are pretty awesome.
Those naturalized on Feb. 6 included 20 from Afghanistan, 10 from Burma and one each from Azerbaijan, Cameroon and Lithuania. The top five countries represented were Mexico (3,956), Vietnam (774), Iran (589), El Salvador (578) and the Philippines (552). People representing 115 other countries also were sworn in that day. How many people can even name that many countries?
One of the oldest new Americans was 99-year-old Thomas Gomez, splendid in stylish beret and long woolen scarf. He'd left his native Spain during its Civil War and lived more than 25 years in Argentina before moving to the States in the '50s. Why did he want to become a U.S. citizen at such an advanced age?
"Because," he answered, "I've never felt free anywhere but here."
Requirements for citizenship are sharply defined. Applicants must first be lawful permanent residents, a status generally attained through marriage or other family ties, political asylum or special work visas. They must have been here at least five years.
After background checks to ensure that they have not been convicted of a felony either here or in their native countries, applicants must pass a written citizenship test. This is when I felt proudest of Setu. She had only three years of school in Nepal, but in America had learned to read and write English so well that she answered all but one question correctly.
Many applicants study our history intensively so they can pass the test. I spoke to a transplanted Russian who explained the Gadsden Purchase--something most American-born citizens barely know about.
The INS has been under the gun lately, partly because of anti-immigration sentiment in this country, but also because of its huge backlog of applicants. There are accusations of inefficiency. But the ceremony I attended ran like clockwork: 5,000 in, 5,000 out, in 2 1/2 hours. Why can't they do that at the DMV?
Participants started arriving at the Convention Center 90 minutes before the ceremony was to begin. First, they passed through a line where they surrendered their precious green cards, the documents that have proven their permanent residency and allowed them to leave and reenter this country.
Then everyone filed onto the main floor of the hall, where folding chairs faced the front podium. Once seated, everyone was handed a congratulatory letter from the White House and a tiny flag to wave after the swearing in, though the more enthusiastic folks (like Setu) decided to do a little waving beforehand.
Collecting the green cards and seating the throng took more than an hour. Everyone cooperated, and things proceeded in orderly fashion. As ceremony time approached, silence descended on the room--until someone began to chant "USA! USA!"
Family members and guests, meanwhile, were herded to the back of the hall, where they huddled up against a velvet rope, snapping their cameras madly. When everyone finally was quiet, a clerk brought the proceedings to order. Everyone rose as a Los Angeles district judge entered and pounded her gavel.
The ceremony itself was short and sweet. First, the judge administered the Oath of Citizenship, in which one renounces any foreign allegiances and promises to support the Constitution and protect the country from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Then, a representative of the INS delivered a short speech, practically inaudible in the huge hall. The ceremony ended with a patriotic song ("God Bless the USA" by Lee Greenwood) and a panoramic video of America. The 5,000 new citizens then waved their little flags and congratulated one another, while family members strained to see their loved ones.
The last step was obtaining the Certificates of Citizenship, which were handed out at dozens of numbered booths. The numbers corresponded to the last three numbers on the applicant forms--not too different from registration at a big university.
In order to prevent an uncontrolled rush, everyone was dismissed row by row. An INS official issued stern admonitions about cutting in line: "Anyone who gets up before his row is called will wait until the very end to get his certificate." He meant business, sending an errant few to the rear of the line.
A citizen at last, Setu held her certificate up for everyone to see.
"I'll always be Nepali," she told me, "but I'm an American now." I could tell her emotions were running deep. She was gripping my hand like an arm wrestler, her face flushed with obvious pride and relief.
To Setu, becoming an American means more than the right to vote and the obligation to sit on a jury. It means a sense of privilege, a sense of security, the feeling that her ship finally has come in. That tiny American flag she waved at the ceremony has been given a place of honor on her night stand, right between her favorite bracelet and a picture of her father.
She showed a little more emotion than usual during the U.S. women's Olympics hockey final. And her Certificate of Citizenship is in a neat new frame, a substitute diploma for the education she never got back home.