By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008
The judge slipped on his black robe as court began for the day. The prosecutor made a motion, and the clerk administered the oath.
As U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III began to speak yesterday, American flags fluttered in the breeze and military aircraft zoomed overhead. The graves of soldiers, freshly dug and from centuries past, bore silent testimony. The 70 people summoned before him had committed no crime -- it was the happiest day of their lives.
Ellis had moved his Alexandria courtroom to Arlington National Cemetery to swear in immigrants from more than 30 countries as U.S. citizens, the first time a naturalization ceremony was held on the hallowed grounds in the cemetery's 144-year history. He wanted to impress upon the new citizens the sacrifices made for their freedom.
"This is truly a wonderful day," said Ellis, his voice cracking, as he gave an emotional tribute to the virtues of citizenship, U.S. history and the warriors buried around him. Speaking in a white-columned amphitheater dating to 1864, in front of a stone marker bearing the Latin phrase "e pluribus unum" from the Great Seal of the United States, he told the immigrants and their families: "It is a wonderful day for each of you, because today you will join the land of the free and the home of the brave."
The judge's passion flowed from his past. Ellis, 68, is also an immigrant, born in Bogota, Colombia. For years, he has presided over naturalization ceremonies on the third Thursday of each month at the U.S. courthouse in Alexandria. As he approaches retirement, he decided to try a different, more meaningful setting, court officials said.
"I did it to honor our country's warriors and to give the new citizens a sense for what makes this country great," Ellis said. The judge, known for his thorough legal opinions and an occasionally irascible demeanor, said he "didn't want any politicians" attending the ceremony. After the immigrants took their oath, Ellis greeted each one personally, choking up as he hugged a new citizen wearing a U.S. Navy uniform.
He then told a woman from Iraq that he was "honored that you chose to be an American."
John Metzler, the cemetery's superintendent, said that the ceremony was "very unusual" but that when the court asked for permission, "we were very honored, and certainly said yes right away." He said citizenship issues are an important part of the cemetery's history. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had his citizenship restored at Arlington after losing it because of his role in the Civil War.
Although immigrants have become citizens at public places, including on the Mall and at the Statue of Liberty, the majority of the country's 650,000 naturalization ceremonies that occurred last year were held at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices. Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the agency, which approves citizenship applications, said judges have sworn in citizens in classrooms and parks but usually hold such ceremonies in courtrooms.
Under federal law, only citizenship applicants who are also changing their names must appear before a federal judge. Of the 70 at yesterday's ceremony, who hailed from countries that included El Salvador, South Korea, China, Mexico, Canada, Lebanon, Australia and Albania, 67 were adopting new names.
Among them was Chanh Vu, 44, a Vietnamese immigrant who came to the United States after the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. In front of his two daughters, Vu became a U.S. citizen and "Americanized" his first name to Shawn.
"I'm the last member of my family to become naturalized. I guess I procrastinated long enough," said Vu, a computer technician from Ashburn. He said holding the ceremony at the cemetery was especially meaningful because "this is where the people who served this country died for the freedom we always take for granted."
The day began like many others in the courtroom of Ellis, who was appointed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan. Ellis has handled many high-profile cases, including that of John Walker Lindh, the Californian who fought for the Taliban, and of two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who are accused of conspiring to obtain classified information and pass it to members of the press and the Israeli government.
"All rise. . . . the honorable United States district judge," the clerk called out as Ellis strode forward. He spoke at a podium -- there was no bench -- and conveyed that this was no ordinary day in court.
"Today, you will become part of this country, and like two centuries of immigrants who have come to this country, you will enrich this country with your talents, your energy and your industry," Ellis said.
U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg made a motion that the court grant the name changes, and Ellis agreed. "All four of my grandparents were immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants, and so the opportunity to welcome some more is one I couldn't pass up," Rosenberg said before the ceremony.
The clerk administered the citizenship oath as cameras flashed, and then Ellis led the cheers. "Congratulations to all of you new Americans," he said before imploring the new citizens to register to vote with two women wearing American flag T-shirts.
U.S. Army Sgt. Nicholas Richards led the Pledge of Allegiance. "I've been serving in the military for nine years, and it's nice to finally say I'm an American," said Richards, a native of Jamaica who applied for citizenship while serving in Iraq.
Gary Thomas of Reston said it was "amazing" to watch his wife, Amina, take the oath. She came to the United States from Morocco in 2000 and had been a lawful permanent resident. Their three young children sat nearby, waving American flags.
"We have a group of new citizens in a place where previous citizens have given their lives and are remembered," he said.
"I want to cry," his wife said. "It feels wonderful."