The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services field office for our slice of Pennsylvania is located at 1600 Callowhill Street, in Philadelphia. It’s just a few blocks north of Philadelphia’s center, within sight distance of the statue of “Billie Penn,” atop the old city hall building. The Immigration office is in an austere but secure neighborhood, within walking distance to local shops, bars, and cafes. I mention this because, when I asked a guy I know where it was located, I was told the USCIS building was in the “ghetto.”
A while back, I lived and worked in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is down-to-earth, an unpretentious city with pleasures, pains, and interesting neighborhoods largely unknown to non-residents. 1600 Callowhill Street in Philadelphia in no way resembles a “ghetto”; it’s a typically urban neighborhood, with fast moving traffic, and a multi-story brick building where the Immigration office is located. There are plenty of secure parking lots at prices which are about a fourth of what you’d pay in New York City. You can park at the street meters if you aren’t too much inconvenienced by the two-hour limit.
I’d volunteered to drive a young guy I know to the USCIS office for his naturalization ceremony. We arrived and parked near 1600 Callowhill on a rainy, raw, and cold day. My pal Aleks had a 2 p.m. appointment, but so did a hundred other resident aliens. We had to pass the security checkpoints. A muscular, compact security man checked my driver’s license and attitude by looking into my face and disguising a few quips as questions. He did the same with Aleks, examining his resident alien or “green card.”
We next had to get rid of metal and electronics. There was a machine screening and a physical body check after that, and then we were guided to an adjudicative area on one of the upper floors. I’d expected surly security personnel and bureaucratic indifference-the security people at 1600 Callowhill Street were polite and efficient.
On the fourth floor, we found seats among the other resident aliens in what much resembled a courtroom, with flag, bench, podium but no witness chair. Aleks was beckoned by some people he knew seating in one of the rows, a Bulgarian man, his wife, and another woman. Aleks had been born in Bulgaria, a little town at the foot of the Rhodope Mountains. The Bulgarians held a sort of impromptu homecoming in the 10th row.
I looked around the “courtroom” at the mix of people waiting to be naturalized. A man came into the room, introduced himself and his female assistant, and in a voice slightly tinged with accent, described the forthcoming events. I judged his accent to be Eastern European. The first item on the agenda was to identify everyone-a sort of roll call ensued. He called out a list of names-I decided my own name was boring. Why wasn’t I named something like “Ozawa?” Or Mehmut? Or Menumata, Pieter, or Razcali?” Because of the rich name environment, and the possibility of surnames strung out in a different order, I couldn’t tell if the adjudicator was calling names in alphabetical order. Maybe he was, perhaps using the Cyrillic alphabet.
The process was now beginning to look a bit more of what I expected, a bit more bureaucratic. Still, the resident aliens were treated with a higher degree of deference and respect than I anticipated. Everyone now having been identified, the adjudicator stood up and made an announcement.
“I will be calling out the names of several countries next. If I mention your own country of origin, please stand.”
The names of several countries-he wasn’t kidding! He went over a long list as hard to pronounce as the words in a medical dictionary. . There were one or two countries I didn’t know were countries. I’d previously heard of them but kind of thought they were the names of planets or solar systems. But no matter how tiny the country, there was always someone to stand up for it. Most of these individuals looked more eager to obtain U.S. citizenship than some Americans did to retain it.
There was a young black woman seated to the right of me. To the left, there was almost an entire row of reserved but smiling Bulgarians, whispering excitedly in a language of which I’d learned only two words on the 100 mile trip to the Philadelphia Citizenship Center. With those two words, you could say that I knew more Bulgarian than I did of the tribal languages of Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone was where the young black woman was from. I’d heard of Sierra Leone but didn’t it sound like it was in Spain? It’s in West Africa, Memunatu told me.
Memunatu had left Sierra Leone at the age of twelve when her father rescued the many girls in their family from the marauding rebel warlord Foday Sankoh, intent on rape, hacking, and murder. She said the people in the village where she lived were offered a choice of which limb the warlord Foday Sankoh’s thugs would chop off. Would you prefer we chop off a hand?…a foot? With her family, she fled first to Guinea and then to Senegal where the family applied for residency in the U.S. under the asylum provisions.
Aleks’ story was perhaps a little brighter. He was among the thousands of Bulgarians who had become restive after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With Bulgaria’s recent admission into the European Economic Union, the country is sustaining a slow recovery in spite of the recent world downturn. With the emigration restrictions lifted, many Bulgarians and others in Eastern European countries left their home countries in search of better lives. Applying for visas, resident alien cards, and eventual citizenship is a long slow process.
The basic application processing fee is nearly $700.00 and that does not count travel and other related costs. Citizenship is by no means certain for anyone, and legal residents (green card or visa holders) live in fear of deportation.
I’d previously met a few of Aleks’ Bulgarian friends. Many of them, professionals in their home country, hold two jobs in humble occupations-low paying factory work and the service industries. An older Bulgarian man I met told me he’d left Bulgaria long ago “under the wire and machine guns.” He now owns a restaurant, fulfilling his life’s dream.
Next in the naturalization ceremony was the surrendering of the green cards, the oath of allegiance to the United States, and then the applicants received their naturalization certificates. The district manager of the field office arrived for the final ceremony which included a short inspirational film with a few traditional American songs ending with “Proud to be an American.”
I looked around as the new citizens stood to become Americans. I wondered if there were cynics among them. If there were, they were few and hard to spot. With the music playing, I thought back on my own parents and grandparents, arriving at Ellis Island in the early 20th century on the steam-passenger ship, the Madonna. Like many of the new citizens I saw now, they had very little or nothing. My grandfather got a job driving spikes on the railroad and, having a strong back and an even disposition, he became a foreman. Within a single generation, and with illiterate or semi-literate forbears, we had college graduates, houses, cars, and middle class, the whole shooting match of material wealth associated with the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
For our part, we took seriously the part of the oath of allegiance where you promise to serve your country in time of need. We’re not all flag wavers and heroes in our family but nearly every one of our male relatives have served-fathers, uncles, brothers and cousins-and most survived. Looking upon those new American citizens standing there with their hands upon their chests, I know that pride intermingled with uncertainty about their future. Perhaps they felt, as a noted person once said, that American Democracy was perhaps the world’s worst form of government – except for all the others.