AN UNCEREMONIOUS NATURALIZATION

By: Zachary Blas Perez

A typical naturalization ceremony can include over a hundred new citizens from a dozen different countries of origin.

As the COVID-quarantine drags on for many of us in this nation, you could be forgiven for thinking longingly of a time in which large gatherings were less fodder for a police blotter and more mundane obligations.  I am sure many of us would jump at the chance to gather in our best red, white, and blue, sit in stiff pews, and stifle under weak courthouse A/C as a crowd renounces fidelity to foreign “princes” and “potentates.”[1]

     What?

Naturalization ceremonies, the rare court event where everyone can walk out a winner, are a time-worn tradition of our system older than most of the courthouses where they may occur.  This past spring, as part of an internship with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (DOJ Civil Rights), I had the opportunity to play a small role assisting two ceremonies and I would like to take this chance now, with social distancing all but quashing normal gatherings, to reflect on this incredibly public feature of an immigrant’s journey.

One of the earliest acts of the newly independent United States was to establish a process for naturalization.[2]  This process required a court visit to receive citizenship but permitted “any common law court of record” within the state an individual had resided for the past year to confer United States citizenship.[3]  A few requirements shifted or changed by later statutes, but this original process remained intact for well over a century.[4] 

However, as the twentieth century dawned, fears of corruption and irregularities led Congress to restrict most state courts from the authority to naturalize.  This, in turn, started the march towards agency adjudication of immigration claims that characterize our system today.[5]  Finally, in one of the last major Congressional reforms to our system of immigration, the Immigration Act of 1990 placed formal authority with the Immigration & Naturalization Service of the Department of Justice (Now USCIS of the Department of Homeland Security).[6]

Today, the actual naturalization ceremony at a courthouse has more in common with a graduation than an adjudication.  It bears mention that, particularly in this time of virtual graduation ceremonies for students, that the initial effect of the Immigration Act of 1990 was to render the naturalization ceremonies completely optional.[7]  However, a certain nostalgia for the formality of the poignant event, with new citizens taking their next step by speaking their name aloud in open court, prevailed upon Congress and led to a minor amendment.[8]  Today, while the Attorney General retains “sole authority to naturalize,” district court judges enjoy the chance to administer the ceremonies.[9]  In my capacity as an intern with DOJ Civil Rights, I observed two different district court judges conduct the Washington, D.C. ceremony with grace and magnanimity – and yes, each stayed afterwards for selfies with the new citizens.

Yet, painfully, this could not be a story about the immigration process in America during 2020 without a concluding note on the damage done by the current administration.  While federal courthouses are the most iconic homes of these joyous occasions, various municipalities over the years have taken the chance to host their own ceremonies and welcome the new citizens within their community.[10]  However, under this executive regime, not all cities are created equal.  Reacting to reports of ICE agents conducting enforcement in former safe spaces in their community, including courthouses no less, the city council of Denver, Colorado opted to reduce information collected on the immigration status of its community members.[11]  Notably, this matter served mainly to codify existing practice and attempt to soothe the broken trust between immigrants and the American government in 2020.[12]  But the prerogative of this administration is to not let any slight go unnoticed. Accordingly, the administration recently ordered USCIS to stop cooperating with the city of Denver on hosting naturalization ceremonies.[13]

Functionally, the process of naturalization for an immigrant in the city of Denver will remain relatively similar to other cities in the nation.  However, rather than declaring your name in court and waving your little American flag with your fellow new citizens, a naturalizing immigrant in Denver will have to settle for the company of just one immigration officer.  Under the Trump administration, you may still become a citizen someday, but you must do so alone.  As we sit here, most of us on our own in self-quarantine, it is worth questioning whether inflicting such a lonely disappointment on our immigrants is truly making America great.

The DOJ Civil Rights Immigrant & Employee Rights section gives the new citizens a ‘Know Your Rights’ talk at each ceremony in the D.C. district courthouse.
All naturalizing citizens are provided with a packet which includes a mini-Constitution and a little American flag.

[1] USCIS, NATURALIZATION OATH OF ALLEGIANCE TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (Apr. 23, 2020), https://www.uscis.gov/us-citizenship/naturalization-test/naturalization-oath-allegiance-united-states-america; See also Oath of renunciation and allegiance, 8 U.S.C. § 1448 (2020).

[2] See Act of Mar. 26, 1790, An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization, 1 Stat. 103 (repealed by Act of Jan. 29, 1795, 1 Stat. 414).

[3] Id.

[4] See generally James H. Kettner, The Development of American Citizenship, 1608-1870 248-86 (1978) (elaborating on the process for obtaining American citizenship during the first half of the nineteenth century).

[5] See Act of June 29, 1906, An Act: To establish a Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, and to provide for a uniform rule for the naturalization of aliens throughout the United States, Pub. L. No. 59-338, 34 Stat 596; see also Report to the President of the Commission on Naturalization, HR Doc. No. 46, 59th Cong, 1st Sess. 11 (Dec. 5, 1905).

[6] See Immigration Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-649, 104 Stat. 4978, codified in various sections of title 8 (1994)(setting naturalization authority with the Attorney General).

[7] See Ronald A. Taylor, Citizenship Process Loses Luster, WASHINGTON TIMES, Mar. 14, 1991, at A3.

[8] See Pub. L. 102-232, § 102(a), 105 Stat. 1733 (Dec. 12, 1991), amending INA § 310(b). 

[9] Id. (specifically designating the Attorney General as the authority for naturalization, since 2002 this is typically read by courts to mean the Secretary of Homeland Security).

[10] USCIS, NATURALIZATION CEREMONIES (Mar. 16, 2020), https://www.uscis.gov/us-citizenship/naturalization-ceremonies.

[11] See Erica Meltzer, How Denver is limiting its cooperation with immigration officials, Denverite, Aug. 28, 2017, https://denverite.com/2017/08/28/ice-cooperation-bill/. (designating precautionary steps taken by the Denver city council to restrict immigration information gathered.)

[12] Id.

[13] See David Sachs, Denver’s government doesn’t hold citizenship ceremonies anymore because the federal government won’t share, Denverite, Feb. 20, 2020, https://denverite.com/2020/02/20/denvers-government-doesnt-hold-citizenship-ceremonies-anymore-because-the-federal-government-wont-share/.