A Moment of Liberty

My son, Alexei, arrived from Russia almost a year ago. Contrary to what one might expect, my adopting him did not automatically make him an American citizen. In fact, his brick-red Russian passport - with the gold hammer and sickle embossed on the cover - seemed immutable.

Even with his little hand in mine as we left Moscow, it struck me as bizarre that Mother Russia would willingly give up one of her own.

When we landed at Kennedy Airport in New York on a sweltering July day, I was herded into the non-United States citizen line along with my son and hundreds of other passengers. It was as if his passport had somehow overridden mine. The object of the segregation was to verify that tourists weren't designing to reside permanently in the US.

Alexei was no tourist, however. And he had no designs on the government of the United States. But it didn't seem to matter. Here in his new country, he was an alien. This word, more than any other, connotes a sense of not being wanted.

Alexei, at the time, could not speak a word of English. So, we stood silently in line, surrounded by passengers from all corners of the earth conversing in their native tongues.

Alexei stood close to me, gripping my hand like a lifeline. His eyes were wide, riveted with attention on the new world he had entered. Whenever the airport loudspeakers barked - incomprehensibly - he looked upward, as if anticipating the voice of God. In my other hand, I held my blue American passport, feeling that it should have some power to liberate me and my new son from the scrutiny the others were undergoing.

AFTER 45 minutes of standing in line, we were received by a customs officer who broke the embassy seal on the package of Alexei's visa papers. I had been told by US authorities in Moscow to protect the integrity of the seal at all costs. If it were disturbed, it could complicate Alexei's passage into the States. So, dutifully, I had handled the package like fine linen, having laid it between a pair of bluejeans and two cotton T-shirts in my carry-on luggage.

Before my eyes, the customs agent was tearing the thing asunder with the abandon of a child opening a Christmas present.

She worked quickly, methodically, her hands and eyes on separate tasks; the result, no doubt, of having handled thousands of such parcels. After stamping Alexei's passport, she directed us to a waiting area filled with a clutch of immigration officers. ``You'll be interviewed there,'' she said.

Interviewed? For what? After having completed the adoption, after so much paperwork, so many fees, and so much scrutiny, not to mention the odyssey to Russia and the tensions involved in dealing with a foreign bureaucracy, I had to admit that I felt entitled to my child. And now I was being interviewed. Did this mean I could still lose him? Could he be denied US citizenship, making him ripe for induction into the Russian army on his 18th birthday?

We sat in the immigration office as officers passed back and forth, clipboards in hand. No one seemed to know we were even there. Alexei had begun to tug on my shirt sleeve. ``Kogda?'' he pleaded. ``Kogda?'' (``When?'') What could I tell him with my 15-word Russian vocabulary? I held up a finger. ``Wait,'' I said, and he rested his head against my arm, sighing with the exhaustion of a 7 year old who has been traveling for 15 hours.

Thirty minutes later, a man in uniform approached us. There was no interview, just a briefing on the process of naturalization. ``It's best to do it before he's 18,'' he said, making it sound like a surgical procedure.

But I knew what he was talking about. If Alexei came of age with only his green card and were to set foot on Russian soil with his Russian passport, there could be complications.

Alexei stepped into America with me, and we proceeded to his new life in Maine. I filled out the paperwork for citizenship and sent it to the Office of Immigration and Naturalization in Portland, Maine.

In the meantime, Alexei began his rapid metamorphosis into an American boy. By Christmas, his English was sufficiently fluent to meet his every need, he was comfortably ensconced in second grade, and his symbiosis with the computer was complete. He began to ask when he would become an American. ``What do you mean?'' I asked him. He ran to my room and fetched our passports, pointing out the difference between them. ``I want one like yours,'' he said.

As the months drew on, I had still not heard anything from Immigration. But Alexei wouldn't let the topic rest. In school, he began to draw pictures of himself holding an American flag. If one looked closely, one could see a tiny blue passport in a tight little hand as well. One caption was particularly cogent: ``I going to take paper. I going to be American boy.''

I recognized all of this yearning to be not so much a need for Americanness as a desire to be like his father, and perhaps like the other children in his class.

But it wasn't until this past spring that Immigration called. They had received and processed Alexei's application for citizenship, my own proof of citizenship, and the fee of $85. ``Can you be here at 11 a.m. on Wednesday?'' they asked.

When I told Alexei, he wanted to know all about it. I described how there would be a judge, and how he would have to raise his hand and hold an American flag. His response was to immediately sit down and draw another picture, this time of a boy running, with flag in hand. It has often struck me that Alexei's smiling profile, ``liberty revealed,'' with its left heel kicked up, would make a fitting design for the obverse of a large American coin.

Wednesday had an air of newness and optimism about it, a Fourth-of-July feel, unseasonably warm for an early spring day in Maine. Alexei and I drove down to Immigration. His concerns were how big his American flag would be and whether the judge would be dressed in black.

And then came the great disillusionment: We were ushered into an office where a man in a suit spread our paperwork out on his desk. He asked a few questions, I signed a few papers, and then I swore that the statements were true.

``You should get his citizenship papers in 45 days or so,'' he said with an air of finality. Alexei tugged on my shirt sleeve. ``What about the flag?'' he implored.

My son had given me the impetus to take action. ``We were expecting a judge, a flag, some sort of ceremony,'' I said, leaning across the desk.

The official smiled. ``Oh, that's naturalization,'' he said. ``You don't have to do that. It's something new we're trying. Since you've adopted, we consider your son to be an American anyway. All he needs to do is apply for his citizenship papers.''

I spoke up immediately. ``But we want to go through the ceremony,'' I said. ``We want the whole treatment. My son's been anticipating this. He's even made drawings,'' I said, incongruously, rummaging in my pocket for a sample of his work. ``I gave you $85!'' I added.

A visit to McDonald's went a little ways toward mollifying Alexei. In fact, it was more ceremonious, and certainly more American, than what we had just been through. But we, or at least I, had apparently made some sort of impression at the Immigration office.

A few days later, I received a call from a woman who identified herself as the regent of the local chapter for the Daughters of the American Revolution.

My dissatisfaction with Immigration had echoed loudly enough to reach the hallowed ranks of the DAR. ``Don't worry,'' she said. ``We'll be at your house tomorrow afternoon at 3.''

TO make a long story short, I put a new T-shirt on Alexei, washed his face, and combed his hair. Flanked by two venerable members of the DAR, and with the Penobscot River flowing serenely behind us, my son was handed his American flag and a copy of the US Constitution to boot.

A photographer commemorated the occasion for the front page of the Penobscot Times. Lastly - and I hesitate to write this because sometimes even the truth can be too much - after the regent had spoken her august words of welcome to Alexei, a bald eagle flew overhead.

We had, indeed, received the full treatment.

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