Fergus Cullen: In the courthouse, it's all smiles when citizens get naturalized
Usually courtrooms are filled with fixed, grim expressions, but that was not the scene at the Rudman Federal Courthouse in Concord last Friday. On this occasion everyone smiled: The judge, the clerks, the Shaker Road School choir singing "America the Beautiful," even the crusty American Legionnaires observing from the jury box.
The biggest smiles were on the dozens of people standing before the magistrate. If you've never witnessed a naturalization ceremony in which our neighbors take an oath and are granted American citizenship, you are missing an experience that will warm your heart.
"Fellow Americans," Judge Landya McCafferty began her remarks to the 82 Granite Staters hailing from 37 countries who became citizens in this ceremony. All have their own stories of the pursuit of opportunity and a better life.
It was impossible to miss Sabahudin Zlotrg, who wore a red, white and blue sweater for the ceremony. A Bosnia refugee, Zlotrg arrived in Manchester in the 1990s with no money, no English, two bags and two teenage daughters. One of them, Mahria, beamed as she translated her family's story on behalf of her dad.
Joy and Rumpa Mukherje of Nashua took the oath together. Joy is an IT professional and his wife, Rumpa, designs websites. Joy managed to land a coveted employment-based H1-B visa for highly skilled workers on his first try in 1998, an unusual feat for someone from India today. Current law allows only 85,000 H1-B visas annually, regardless of market demand. In 2008, that quota was filled in just one day. Each year the artificially low quota and bureaucratic hurdles prevent hundreds of thousands of talented foreign professionals from contributing to the American economy. The Makherje's two school-aged sons, already citizens by virtue of having been born here, watched the ceremony.
Olajide Adeoya of Manchester was even luckier: The former Nigerian banker won the green card lottery in 2007. Each year the U.S. awards 50,000 green cards randomly - skills or even age are not factors - in a so-called diversity lottery open to residents of underrepresented countries. In 2011, more than 15 million applied for these 50,000 slots, a measure of the extent to which America remains a shining city on a hill to the rest of the world. The odds also make it a cruel hoax of false hope. Adeoya entered the lottery 10 times before his name was drawn. Today he works as a technician and supports his wife and three young children.
Konrad Kuc, an electrical engineer recruited by a U.S. firm, left Poland on a work visa in 1991, not long after the collapse of Communism. "He's a brilliant man," his adult son assured me repeatedly, making sure I didn't mistake his father's limited English for lack of talent.
Martin Sedlacek is a doctor specializing in kidney diseases. Originally from Germany, Dr. Sedlacek completed his medical training in New York before taking a position at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. His wife, Carmen Bascunan, is originally from Chile and was also naturalized last week.
"It's a new start in life. This is my second chance," an overjoyed Hilde Baert, originally from Belgium, told me, struggling to contain herself. She has a degree in history, but "it's useless here" so she is taking classes at Antioch College in Keene. She is studying autism spectrum disorders, which affect both her sons, one of whom is cared for at Crotched Mountain. "He gets the best possible care. He couldn't live in Belgium, not at all," she said.
Alhaji Kargbo fled war-torn Sierra Leone as a teenage refugee and was settled initially in Concord. His mother, resplendent in a gorgeous blue and orange West Africa dress and headdress, watched her now 25-year-old son take the oath. Kargbo has ambitions to start a business exporting cars from the U.S. to Africa.
More than 1,600 Granite Staters become citizens each year at naturalization ceremonies like this. Most take place monthly at the Concord courthouse, others at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' field office in Bedford, and a few special events at Strawbery Bank or a Legion hall.
Court personnel, used to processing less pleasant stories, enjoy the ceremonies so much that retirees volunteer to work them.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist and former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, is founder of Americans By Choice, a group that supports immigration reform. He can be reached at email@example.com.