The naturals 

Pledging allegiance in a divided nation

On Nov. 4, 2004, at the Missoula County Courthouse, 40 people were sworn in as U.S. citizens. The people who filled the small courtroom exuded a collective air that was distinctly un-Missoula. Pleated trousers replaced Carhartts. One woman wore a polka-dotted scarf over her ponytail. The names read from the docket list sound like songs: Kloetzke, Malaga, Datsopoulos, Zou, Zolotukhina and Chynoweth; Miller, Dodd, Hall, McLennan, McKinnon and McAllister.

Two days earlier, some citizens of the United States had elected George W. Bush to a second term in office, but just barely. The men and women who took the oath of citizenship Thursday join a nation divided. Their reasons range from the pragmatic to the personal.

One woman wore a shirt printed with the Stars and Stripes. Most of the citizens-to-be were dressed up. One woman wore a corsage. Audience members came prepared with vases of red and white roses. Joel McLennan held a small girl wearing patent leather shoes and pink socks. His wife is from Australia, so they travel to the land down under. Obtaining U.S. citizenship, for her, was a practical matter.

“We can come and go as we please,” he says. “We don’t have to worry about visas.”

They started the paperwork in July 1999, and it cost a few thousand dollars.

The Honorable Leif B. Erickson presided, and he opened with a joke that was inaudible in the audience camp, over the children’s coughs and the families’ quiet chatter. But the 40 who sat up front smiled and laughed.

Names were called. Each person stood and nodded, an affirmation of identity. A man from Greece grinned widely. He stood a little longer than his peers, looking eager, like an acceptance speech might have better suited his nature than a mere nod.

When it was time to take the oath, all stood and raised their right hands. They renounced any allegiances to foreign princes. They pledged to defend the U.S. Constitution and the laws of the United States of America.

In the audience, family members raised cameras to snap photos and pan video across the new citizens. Magistrate Judge Erickson gave a short talk. Those of us who were born in the United States, said Erickson, were born with citizenship and “didn’t have to work for it, didn’t have to strive for it, didn’t have to struggle for it.”

“We need people who are willing to come here and understand what it means to be a United States citizen,” Erickson said, which is to say, participation in the democratic government. “It’s in your hands now.”

Together, at the end, the newly naturalized citizens and those in the audience said the pledge of allegiance. Erickson had described the recent election as “contentious.” Nonetheless, the group pledged allegiance to a republic “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Outside the courtroom, members of the Bitterroot Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution served baked goods—brownies and M&M cookies.

Being a Daughter, says Marge Robinson, means that you have traced your ancestry back to someone who fought in the Revolutionary War. The Bitterroot Chapter, of which Robinson is a member, has 68 members. During the ceremony, the Daughters passed out small flags and voter registration ballots. Robinson wishes that the group of 40 had been eligible to vote in this year’s election instead of two days later.

Four members of the Grizzly Battalion of the ROTC sat just outside the courtroom in a lounge area. Cadet Tiffany Yetter-Smereck is one of the members who participated in the advance of the color guard during the naturalization ceremony. Yetter-Smereck, a junior in the Reserves, is working the naturalization ceremony for the first time. “It’s hard to be a citizen nowadays,” she said. She has a friend “stuck in Canada right now.” Yetter-Smereck will be eligible for deployment one year after graduation.

After the ceremony, families formed clusters in the courtroom and in the lounge. One cluster floated a balloon with a picture of the Statue of Liberty in an unfamiliar shade of green. Another woman carried a basket brimming with roses and lilies. A family approached the judge and asked him to pose for pictures.

Maria Constanza von der Pahlen, having just been sworn in, beamed at her husband and he reciprocated.

Von der Pahlen was born in Argentina, but, she says, “I started taking tango lessons when I was in New Haven, Connecticut,” She has been eager to vote, she says, and she knows that she is joining a deeply divided nation.

“That’s the reason why I became a citizen, to vote and participate in government,” she says.

One Iranian woman, probably well past retirement age, became a U.S. citizen Thursday. It’s hard not to look at her and wonder how it feels to become a citizen of a country that has called her birthplace evil. She held no grudges, apparently. She wasn’t too interested in talking, but she was laughing a little, and she leaned over to grant a stranger a spontaneous kiss.

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