Each year, individuals from across the globe choose to settle into Missouri. The final step in that process is a naturalization ceremony in Jefferson City.
Immigration is a hot-button issue, popping up in national political conversation and around family dinner tables. There’s talk about the cost of border maintenance, those who enter the country undocumented, and the treatment of refugee children, but it’s not as common to put a human face on how immigration and naturalization affect our community.
Twice a year, though, immigrants from as far as Burundi and Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom gather in Jefferson City and take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States. Despite their varied pasts and no doubt difficult individual journeys, they have chosen Missouri, and our community, to start their new life.
Tania Lock, deputy clerk at the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, coordinates and prepares for each naturalization ceremony. In addition to seeing to the logistical details of each ceremony, Lock arranges the nuances that make each day uniquely meaningful. First, she has to secure a judge to preside, a privilege which she says is one of their favorite duties. Next, Lock looks for a guest speaker to welcome the new citizens.
“We search for someone who has been through the process, can relate to the experience, and share their journey after becoming a U.S. citizen,” Lock says.
Other key players include vocalists or chorale groups and an organization to display the American flag. Lock says that members of local Boy Scout troops, R.O.T.C. groups, and American Legion posts have participated in the past. Lock herself gets to administer the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance.
“You’ve never seen so many expressions happening all at once as when you’re looking out at the faces of the applicants with their right hand held high repeating each word of the oath to become our fellow Americans,” Lock says. “They are scared, excited, happy, smiling, crying.”
It can be amazing to bear witness to this transformative moment in these people’s lives. One minute they’re an immigrant, an applicant, an “other,” and with the recitation of 140 words, they’re an American, with the rights and privileges that come with that status.
One minute they’re an immigrant, an applicant, an “other,” and with the recitation of 140 words, they’re an American, with the rights and privileges that come with that status.
Nanette K. Laughrey, senior U.S. district judge, has been part of the naturalization process for 23 years. Her favorite part of the ceremony is when those taking the oath realize they’re officially citizens.
“You can just see their faces light up,” Laughrey says. “There’s a very happy atmosphere.”
Judge Laughrey wants Jefferson City and the surrounding community to realize the similarities they share with new citizens.
“This is a rigorous process that people go through, and these are people, just like our ancestors, who came here with nothing,” Judge Laughry says, adding, “Sometimes just a smile is a good way to let people know that they’re welcome.”
When discussing what brought them to the United States and citizenship, new residents all have different “whys.”
“To be legal. To get better jobs,” says Olawale Onasanya, an immigrant from Kenya who found himself applying for citizenship in Missouri because he is stationed with the U.S. Army at Fort Leonard Wood.
“I think I’ve always wanted to be an American citizen since I was about 8 years old, from watching old American movies with my Dad. Clint Eastwood, mostly,” says Paul Middleton, of the UK. He’ll be living in Boonville because he says the landscape reminds of Leeds, back in England.
“I married an American in the Philippines,” says Margery Armon. She moved to Joplin to be near her family, even though her husband is originally from St. Louis. (“If she was going to come around the world for me, I could move five hours for her,” he chimed in.)