Twice a month, as many as 150 prospective candidates gather in the cavernous jurors' room of the county courthouse, bearing official documents and expressions ranging from unalloyed joy to vague apprehension. Surrounded by family and friends, pocket cameras, and the accumulated aspirations of a lifetime, they stand poised to become American citizens.
Within an hour, they will be summoned forward one by one to sign naturalization certificates and to surrender residency cards, their names and faces hailing from every corner of the globe.
Then, all together, they will stand before a justice of the state supreme court and recite the naturalization oath, renouncing with upraised hand all allegiance to "foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty" and swearing to "support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
Finally, the entire room - including friends and family, court clerks and judge - will rise, face the flag, and, with hand over heart, recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
We were present in that crowded room recently as a friend of the family, a woman who had fled death squads and hopelessness two decades earlier, recited the Oath of Allegiance.
She had arrived as a young, single woman in search of a safe haven for herself and her future children. She learned a new language, married, and then together with her husband helped to bring other members of her family over, succeeding in making a new life for them all.
After 20-some years of tireless labor she had finally decided to join her children in their citizenship - though not without ambivalence, or having to contend with feelings of disloyalty to her homeland, her language, her heritage, and the relatives who had chosen to remain behind. She would have preferred to repair rather than flee her native land, but had recognized over time that the task was beyond her powers.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, she found herself becoming naturalized, flourishing in what had once seemed an alien and forbidding culture, her thoughts turning less and less to her birthplace, and more often to this land of imperishable dreams. Increasingly, America came to feel like home.
Like so many immigrants and political refugees before her, she had arrived full of great expectations. Some of these had been fulfilled through patience, toil, and sacrifice. Others, she now realized, would probably never come to pass, not for want of opportunity, but simply because her life had followed unforeseen paths.
Marriage and children and community had demanded so much more of her than she had envisioned as a new arrival. She had once imagined returning in wealth and security to her native city, but no longer dreamed of such a retirement, content to live in America with children and grandchildren close at hand, understanding that wealth could be reckoned in so many more ways than simply in dollars.
Long before she recited the Oath of Allegiance, she had become a citizen of America in spirit, rejecting the hopelessness of her homeland, insisting on a better future for her family.
So when our friend finally stood with her hand over her heart, that day marked not only the commencement of her new national identity, but the end of a long and anguished weaning.
After the Pledge of Allegiance was recited and before the presiding judge stepped down from her high bench to welcome each new citizen, the assembled were invited to say a few words about their feelings at that moment.
Awed by the solemnity of the occasion, subdued by the large crowd, the presence of a judge, and, perhaps, by their own imperfectly mastered English, the new citizens exchanged nervous glances until finally one brave woman rose from her place at the rear of the auditorium and proudly declared, "I've raised seven American children and feel so fortunate to be able, finally, to join them in being an American citizen."
Another stood and recalled tracing the outline of the United States on a wall map in her impoverished island school, vowing one day to come here and better herself.
And then our friend, a normally reticent woman, rose and said, "This country has given so much to me and my family. I feel honored to be able now to try to do good in the name of the United States as an American citizen. I love this country."
"And we feel honored to have you," the judge replied warmly.
Then, still wearing the black robe of her high office, she came forward and shook each of the 123 extended hands, posing for photos, greeting spouses and children, encouraging each to become politically and civically active. When our friend's name was called, she accepted her naturalization certificate, shook the judge's hand, and then turned to face our camera, a thoughtful smile upon her journeyed face, her eyes revealing the occasion's wealth of emotion: bittersweet memory, a reluctant farewell, abiding hope.
We left the courthouse in search of a quiet restaurant. Our friend's daughter, a willowy 12-year-old, proudly took her mother's arm.
The daughter was wearing an elegant overcoat that struck me as vaguely familiar.
"Do you recognize the coat?" our friend asked.
And then, suddenly, I did. It had originally belonged to the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in America, had passed, by way of the girl's former governess, to my own daughters, and eventually to our friend's, still looking as crisp and chic as it had upon the privileged young girl it had been tailored to fit so many years before.
"That's the promise of America," our friend said, stroking her daughter's arm.
Not everyone who settled here met with the success they envisioned back home, but the opportunities their children enjoyed were limitless, generation after generation, rising high on the hopes and dreams of hardworking, self-sacrificing parents.
"Just look at her," she said proudly of her fashionably dressed daughter. "She could become a judge someday, just like the lady justice this afternoon."
Her daughter smiled and nodded with native self-confidence. Indeed, she could. In America anything was possible.