Wall-to-wall immigrant families filled the RiverCentre convention hall in downtown St. Paul Monday morning for the mass naturalization of 878 people from 89 foreign countries.
They came in their best ethnic dresses and pressed suits accented with red, white, and blue ties, hoisting cameras and crying babies. Everywhere was the nervous flutter of pocket-sized American flags.
Sixth graders from the Great River School of St. Paul sang the National Anthem. Then the countries of origin were called, one by one, in order of least to most represented. In cases where there were only two or three -- as with Austria, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and South Korea -- the new citizens would stand, search the hall to find whomever else had come from their homeland, and give a little wave before sitting back down.
There was enthusiastic applause for Syria, which had four new citizens, and tremendous cheers for Mexico, with 70, and Somalia, with 170.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Hildy Bowbeer, who presided over the ceremony, gave a heartfelt address on celebrating differences, a timely reminder of the best and bravest parts of the American experiment in a xenophobic era.
“You are free,” Bowbeer told the 878. “The laws of this country are designed to protect your freedom. Your freedom to think on your own, to form your own opinions. You’re free to voice your own opinions whether you believe that very many people agree with you, or if you believe that only a few people agree with you. You’re free to work where you want to work, to read what you want to read, to say what you want to say. You’re free to believe what you want to believe, to openly practice any religion, or to practice no religion at all. There’s no single American way to think or believe.”
There was a swearing of the oath of allegiance in unison, the screening of a saccharine video with scenes of naturalization ceremonies held at landmarks across the country, and the distribution of certificates of citizenship.
For Manu Upraty, a refugee and single mother from Nepal, that piece of paper was the culmination of a seven-year wait and many months of studying. Her three minor children don’t get to be citizens just yet, she said through an interpreter, but with her precious new citizenship certificate number, immigration can begin to process them as well.
Carlos Castro, one of seven from Guatemala, was overwhelmed with emotion as his family – most of whom had already become citizens – crowded around him.
“I’m just… it’s hard to believe what just happened,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for 15 years. There was a lot of waiting, a lot of waiting, a lot of uncertainty at some points. It was hard work, and I made it. I’m just happy.”
Castro has just finished school, and hopes use his law enforcement diploma to follow his military brother into public service by becoming a police officer. Because Minnesota requires new recruits to be U.S. citizens, it's a dream he is closer than ever to finally achieving.
Still, there were times during the ceremony when he couldn’t help but think of all the people for whom the door of immigration was recently closed.
“I don’t know,” he said with a sigh. “It was hard to think about that when I was trying to enjoy my moment too. I don’t know. Everybody’s so split in society now, but I was glad to see a lot of people from the Middle East today, all coming together as one big group.”