ACFEA arranges dozens of tours each year to far-off lands the world over, but every now and again an experience near to home can bring you close to bliss.
One such event that I’ll remember forever happened during the summer of 2010. We’d worked with the Boston Children’s Chorus on a couple of international tours, but this time around they had arranged their own travel to Washington DC over the Fourth of July and were looking for something interesting to do in Philadelphia. They called me and asked if I’d be willing to arrange a performance for them, and of course I agreed.
The summer before, I had read an article about a tradition that the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has had for many years. Each year, around Independence Day, the USCIS holds a handful of naturalization ceremonies in quintessential American places like Ellis Island, the National Mall and other national historic sites. Thousands of immigrants are naturalized every day in high school gyms, courthouse meeting rooms and hotel conference rooms, but around the holiday they choose a few of those citizenship candidates to be part of these special events.
After lots of calling, I found someone at USCIS who would hear me out: why not have a citizenship ceremony in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, with the Boston Children’s Chorus present to perform for them as they’re taking their oath? Being a very diverse organization, the BCC is a perfect example of our melting pot of a country. Furthermore, the BCC has many members who have either been through the process themselves or are the children of parents who have done it. They would be the perfect ambassadors. Fortunately, the USCIS agreed! They loved the idea and through their office and the National Parks Department we started putting this ceremony together.
Seeing the site on the day of the event was exciting. A stage had been erected in the park, directly in front of Independence Hall where our Declaration of Independence was signed 234 years earlier.
After the chorus arrived and did a brief run-through, the candidates for citizenship began arriving – some alone, others with family in tow. There were about 20 candidates from just as many countries. Several of them were wearing their active-duty US Army fatigues. The ceremony began with a welcome by Alejandro Mayorkas, the director of the USCIS, and ended with a recitation of the Oath of Allegiance that officially swore them in as the newest Americans.
The choir didn’t know this at the time, but I had just begun the process of applying for a visa for my fiancé, Maurice, who is from Guinea, in West Africa. He was embarking on the same journey that those 20 people in front of me were just completing. Anyone who has been through this process will tell you that it’s not for the faint of heart. For the past several months I had been overwhelmed by paperwork and sometimes felt like giving up. But, sitting there on that warm summer day, in front of Independence Hall, a symbol of freedom and opportunity, I watched those 20 people become brand new American citizens. When the Boston Children’s Chorus began singing “America the Beautiful” I could no longer contain my tears. It was a well-needed encouraging reminder of what I was working toward, and something I will never forget.
After the ceremony, I met with Mr. Mayorkas, shook his hand and told him my story. He assured me that millions of people have paved the way for people like us, and that he was sure that, with a little patience, it would all work out.
This month, Maurice and I will celebrate our second wedding anniversary. With any luck, in five years time Maurice will be serenaded by a chorus as he becomes one of the newest Americans.