David Bernthal/Off the Bench: Naturalization ceremonies a time of joy

David Bernthal/Off the Bench: Naturalization ceremonies a time of joy

No one will be surprised to hear that there are not many happy days in a courtroom. My friends in state court get to do weddings and adoptions that for the most part are uplifting. That was not part of my federal court experience. In that setting, the feel-good days happened about four times a year, when the adversarial arena was transformed into a place of celebration. Of course, I am referring to the times we conducted naturalization ceremonies.

On those days smiles, balloons, flowers and refreshments replaced stern faces, objections and legal arguments. We even allowed cameras in the courtroom.

Thanks to the generosity of my fellow judges, I had the opportunity to preside over more than 125 such ceremonies in which candidates for citizenship took the oath and became U.S. citizens. In the early days, those events took place in the large courtroom in Danville. After that space was relinquished, we moved the site to the U.S. Courthouse in Urbana.

I should provide some basic information regarding the process that precedes the ceremony. While there are multiple types of applicants, with requirements that differ from type to type, the most common is a person who is at least 18 years of age who has been a permanent resident for the past five years. The person must file an application and pay a fee, which is currently $680. The applicant must be fingerprinted and is subject to a criminal record check. In addition, an interview is required and a test must be passed. I invite inquiring minds to visit the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (http://www.uscis.gov) for more details.

Regarding the test, candidates are asked 10 questions from a list of 100 and must get six correct. To provide some perspective, here are some examples from the list:

— How many amendments does the U.S. Constitution have?

— The House of Representatives has how many members?

— Who is the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court?

— Name one of the writers of The Federalist Papers.

Here is an idea for a cold January day: Go to the website and retrieve the list of questions and see how you do.

When an applicant has been approved, he or she attends the ceremony mentioned above. A representative of the government makes a motion to admit the candidates to citizenship. The motion (formal request to the court) contains the following statements: "It has been established that, during the period required by law, he/she has been a person of good moral character." "He/she is attached to the principles of our Constitution and form of government".

Once the motion is granted, the oath of allegiance is taken. The full oath can be found on the website. I was always stuck by the following portion:

"I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen."

Those are powerful words. Their impact was brought home following one ceremony, when a couple came up and explained that they had been in the United States for 32 years and it had taken that long for the wife to be able to renounce the Queen.

The ceremonies are made memorable by a substantial number of people. Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, first in Danville and later in Champaign-Urbana, provided a warm and gracious welcome (not to mention delicious refreshments) at each event. None of these ceremonies would have been successful without the work done by the courthouse team. From planning in chambers to coordination of the events of the day, deputy marshals, court security officers, law clerks, deputy clerks and custodians all assumed responsibilities beyond their normal duties. At the risk of offending some by mentioning only one name, I'll point out that the person who pulled it all together was the "Producer and Director," Mrs. Teresa Cronk. Thanks to all the work done by these fine people, I just showed up and had the best time.

While it is past tense for me now, the process continues, with United States Magistrate Judge Eric Long presiding. I trust he enjoys it as much as I did.

Perhaps I shall be able to tell some stories and share some memories in future columns. For now, I'll just say that being the first person to address the new citizens as "My Fellow Americans" was quite special.

David Bernthal, who lives in Mahomet, is a retired 21-year federal magistrate and before that an eight-year associate circuit judge in Vermilion County. His email is askthejudge1@gmail.com.

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