Coming To America -- 100 New Citizens Sworn-In Downtown

Categories: Local News
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Joe Eskenazi
Citizens-to-be take the oath
Considering the years of paperwork, legal wrangling, and leaping through hoops many of the would-be American citizens sitting this morning in San Francisco's Herbst Theater had suffered through, the government's last obstacle was hardly a chore: Two hours of speechifying.

Sure, the soon-to-be Americans may have shifted in their chairs a bit when the master of ceremonies scanned the audience to thank an "acting superintendent" of one government body or another. And, yes, it warrants mentioning that the day's best and most rollicking speech was delivered by a medical doctor who urged his new countrymen to rush out and celebrate their nascent citizenship by getting themselves checked for Hepatitis B.

But those are details that will be swept away like dust in the day's torrential rain. In the end, 100 new citizens celebrated a day years in the making with their wives, husbands, and children. For the many Asians who can now call themselves Asian-Americans, it was a particularly poignant moment. The celebration marked the 100th anniversary -- to the day -- of the opening of Angel Island. A handful of elderly former "Angel Island Detainees" were even present for the occasion.

"It's been a really, really long journey," said Chinese-born Charles Zheng, who has been working to become a U.S. citizen for nine years. "We will tell our kids and their kids about Angel Island. Our wish is that America will give more and more people freedom and happiness."

Swearing in, Jan 21 2010 008.jpg
Joe Eskenazi
Charles Zheng
The 100 new citizens hailed from 44 nations -- ranging, alphabetically, from Algeria to the United Kingdom. It was a miniature United Nations -- which made it even odder that no one saw fit to mention that the charter establishing the U.N. had been signed in this very room.

Moving through the crowd of new citizens -- easy to spot with red carnations in their lapels and ubiquitous pocket-sized American flags -- a few answers kept coming up again and again as to why this was such an important day.

"Now I can vote," said Amar Smaili of Algeria. "And I can travel without a visa. I have so many more opportunities. There are so many more jobs."

The desire to vote -- and avoid maddening visa issues when traveling -- came up repeatedly. It was truly a missed opportunity for travel agents and those toting voter registration forms that they didn't set up in the lobby.

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Joe Eskenazi
South African-born Dieter Leibold (left) and Pieter Janse Van Rensburg bring many more names to America
South African-born Dieter Leibold -- who also wants to vote and travel -- was more relieved than most at the conclusion of the ceremony. Others had waited longer for this day. But now he had officially beaten his unborn son -- due in March -- in the race for American citizenship. It's a profound moment for any son when he's finally able to beat out his father. It shouldn't come at the moment of birth. "That would have set a very bad precedent," said Leibold.

Like many of the new citizens, Leibold took time after the ceremony for a few photos -- but only a few. "I'm due at work," he said, striding out into the pouring rain. "And I'm already late."

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