For the first time in my life I was embarrassed to be an American. If you have ever attended a swearing-in ceremony for new American citizens, you may have felt the same way.
On June 23, I attended such a ceremony at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria for my son-in-law Joe. When I arrived at 12:30 for a ceremony scheduled for 1 p.m., I saw hundreds of people standing in 90-degree heat in a line that never seemed to move. There was no one in sight to tell the would-be citizens or their guests what to do or where to go.
I managed to push my way through the crowd of sweaty and confused applicants. Once inside the school, I discovered more lines designated by brown, green, orange, blue and other colors. There was even a line for applicants with specific problems. Frankly, I think everybody had a problem, and it was the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Joe had the fortitude to withstand the 1 1/2-hour wait. It took that long to advance to the clerk, who searched through a long list of handwritten (no, not a computer list) names and finally handed him a card with his name on it.
Joe looked at me and shrugged, as if to say, I made it this far, I might as well stay.
"Hang in there, Joe," I said. "It's really worth the trouble." I was thinking he had been through the worst.
There were hundreds of people in the auditorium. They didn't look excited, happy or proud. There wasn't a smile in the house.
At 2, everybody was seated in the auditorium with only the best to come, or so I thought. Then the electrical power went out. Joe borrowed my cigarette lighter to go to the men's room. Without air-conditioning and with so many people, the auditorium quickly became hot, sticky and very uncomfortable. We were consoled by the thought that the ceremony would soon be over. What a laugh.
At about 2:15, an official announced that the judge, who was to do the swearing-in, was not scheduled to arrive for some time. Well, you can imagine everyone's reaction. They had suffered through the long lines. They were hot and uncomfortable. They were ready to become American citizens -- only to learn the judge was running late.
The response was a loud, unanimous, agonizing groan, and everyone quickly got up from his seat and began going in different directions. At the top of her lungs, an INS official shouted, "Stay in your seats. You have to be seated when the judge arrives. We can't keep the judge waiting."
After a good laugh, the crowd dispersed. I wouldn't have been surprised if some people changed their minds about becoming citizens and left the premises. I made sure Joe was not among them.
We wanted the show to get on the road. I had distinguished guests -- senators and delegates from the great state of Virginia -- waiting at our house to congratulate Joe on his citizenship. You see, I was excited and proud that Joe was becoming a citizen of the United States. Joe was excited. Our friends, political or otherwise, wanted this to be a joyous, patriotic and once-in-a-lifetime experience. We didn't realize that the INS considered it just a bureaucratic procedure. We didn't know that flags wouldn't be waving or that the U.S. Marine Band wouldn't be playing "Stars and Stripes Forever." We didn't know we would be made to feel downright unwelcome.
The judge eventually swore everybody in. Most of the applicants couldn't have known what they were swearing to, because they couldn't hear what the judge was saying. But they didn't care. They were American citizens now, and everyone cheered loudly.
Just as everyone was about to leave came another INS announcement: every new citizen was to wait to receive his certificate. Fine, we thought, let's get it and go. Nope, the certificates had not arrived yet from the clerk of court's office.
Yes, Joe did become an American citizen and, yes, he hung in there to get his certificate -- at 4 p.m.
I later told Joe not to judge this country by what he experienced that day. I wanted him and all applicants to be excited about their achievement.
Joe is happy and proud to be an American. But not because the U.S. government (more specifically, the INS) made him welcome. Please, INS, have the courtesy to treat future American citizens with a little more respect. And if it's not too much trouble, try to create an atmosphere of patriotism, excitement and pride. -- Richard L. Brunelle