David Bernthal/Off the Bench: Fond memories of naturalization ceremonies

David Bernthal/Off the Bench: Fond memories of naturalization ceremonies

As we approach another Thanksgiving, I am reminded of my grade school studies of the Pilgrims and what was described as the first Thanksgiving gathering. Those people had come to this land from afar to start a new chapter. Some were leaving oppressive situations and some seeking economic opportunities. Regardless of the motivation, people gave up the known in exchange for the unknown.

People still come here today to start that new chapter. In some cases, the motivation is quite similar. While much more is known about the new land that is now the United States of America, for those coming to stay and pursue a dream there are still risks and unknowns.

Over the years, I was given the opportunity to encounter many people who had come here, gone through the legal steps and been approved for citizenship. My fellow judges allowed me the privilege of presiding over the ceremonies in which the oath was administered and citizenship attained. I remain thankful to them for this courtesy and generosity.

In a previous column, I described the process. Today I want to share some recollections from those 125-plus ceremonies and some of the thousands of people I met. After all, the real story is not the legal process or the numbers, but the real people who have joined us as citizens.

I admit that I underestimated the emotion that I would encounter and feel. I cannot adequately describe the faces of the people in the courtroom as I looked out from the bench. Some were stoic but most were beaming. Joy and excitement filled the courtroom. As I greeted each new citizen with a handshake, gratitude was apparent. Tears were common.

Speaking of tears, everyone knows that it is not cool for judges to get teary. Well, I confess that I came close more than once. We frequently had speakers address the new citizens. One such speaker was Assistant U.S. Attorney Ellie Pearson, who told the story of an immigrant couple and the sacrifices they made to give their children a better life. When she concluded by revealing that she was their child, I noticed my eyeballs began to sweat.

The new citizens come from many different countries. There were some that I had never heard of. They may have come from countries that were involved in conflict with each other but they left as fellow Americans.

I remember an experience following a ceremony in my early years. A couple who had been British subjects until that day came up and told me they had lived in this country 32 years. According to the husband, it had taken that long for his wife to be ready to renounce the queen. That really had an impact on me and I thought about that couple whenever I administered the oath.

We started a practice of recognizing those in the audience who had served in our country's armed services. From time to time, those standing in the audience were joined by new citizens who had served or were currently serving. I think some in attendance were surprised by this and some of you who read this may be as well.

Most of the ceremonies were conducted in the courthouse. Initially, they were held in Danville and later in Urbana. We always had the support and assistance of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Their contributions in both communities remain one of my favorite aspects of the ceremonies.

Occasionally, ceremonies were conducted away from the courthouse. One of those stands out for a near disaster. For a ceremony conducted at Lincoln Square, the lawyers at Webber & Theis generously offered to display a framed letter from Abraham Lincoln. Given its significance this letter does not make many public appearances. Following the ceremony, the stand holding the letter was bumped and started to wobble. Fortunately, it did not fall, but I shall never forget the expression on the face of John Thies. I suspect my eyes got big as well.

Currently, cameras are not allowed in the courtroom. Naturalization ceremonies were exempt from this prohibition. Consequently, many people brought cameras (including smart phones and devices) for a visual record of a special day. It took awhile to get used to having people line up to have a picture with me as the official who administered the oath. It felt a little like being a Disney character. If you have one of those pictures, I hope it is still scaring away rodents as promised. I also hope it brings you the same kind of memories that I have as I reflect on those days.

David Bernthal, who lives in Mahomet, is a retired 21-year federal magistrate. He is of counsel with the Webber & Thies PC law firm and serves as senior mediator and arbitrator with ADR Systems. His email is askthejudge1@gmail.com.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion