Citizenship hustle

Check out the next U.S. Customs and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony at 9 a.m., Wednesday, June 12, at Raley Field, 400 Ballpark Drive in West Sacramento.

There are few places more American than a baseball stadium on a cool spring morning. Pack that stadium with 888 newly naturalized U.S. citizens—shifting impatiently and using pocket-sized versions of the Declaration of Independence to shade the sun—and it gets even Americanier.

This was the scene in May at Raley Field in West Sacramento. Once a month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services gather the region's not-so-poor, not-so-huddled masses yearning to be free of visa red tape, and swear them in en masse. The mood is both festive and slightly anti-climactic. Like, “That's it? I'm an American now? Where’s my free gun and Happy Meal?

While naturalized citizens don't get gats or grease, they do get a ton of paperwork. After a ceremony featuring multiple speakers and colorful, cultural dance troupes, new Americans representing 79 countries are herded to get their lifetime-citizenship papers and Social Security forms.

Streaming toward the parking lot, disoriented citizens were handed River Cats programs and voter-registration pamphlets.

Facing a crush of dueling Democratic and Republican Party volunteers shilling their product, one Hispanic-American man escalated his declaration of “Not today” from polite dismissal to exclamatory battle cry.

But it's not all political gamesmanship and bureaucratic shuffle. A bashful Filipino-American woman, who became a citizen after three long years, unwrapped a congratulatory shot glass from her friends. An Indian-American man with missing front teeth grinned widely as his friend snapped photos of him in every line. And an older Mexican-American man in a cowboy hat appeared touched by a stranger's congratulations.

My mother's naturalization ceremony a decade ago featured less pageantry and pomp, but just as much circumstance. This was back before the days of ballpark cattle calls and political groups looking to cash in on the confusion.

USCIS spokeswoman Sharon Rummery said the reason for turning naturalization ceremonies into big events “is to enhance the solemnity and importance of becoming a United States citizen,” but my mom wasn't into all that noise.

I was the only person she told, and only because she needed a ride. (Mom doesn't do freeways.) A German to the core, she begrudgingly switched teams after decades stateside because updated visa laws made renewing hers even more of a hassle. DMV employees have nothing on slow, surly immigration officials.

I've never liked jingoistic patriotism, but looking at all those unique faces stirred something. That oft-quoted plaque at the base of Lady Liberty often makes it like we're the ones doing immigrants a favor. And maybe that's true to an extent, but it's not the whole truth and nothing but.

On that day, the judge struck a humbler tone. He thanked the diverse crowd before him for choosing us, for making this country better just by virtue of coming here.

It was America at her most gracious.

Recalling this story during a Mother's Day brunch, my mom reached out and clasped my hand. For her, at the time, the ceremony was just an errand, and a bittersweet one at that. But now she reconsidered.

“I never knew it meant so much to you,” she said, her blue-green eyes crystallizing. And then, as only a mother can, she teased, “Are you crying?”

Maybe a little, Mom. Maybe a little.