A Lesson In U.S. Citizenship

June 13, 2008

As part of his duties as US District Judge, T.S. Ellis III swears in immigrants from more than 30 countries, as US citizens, during their naturalization ceremonies. For years he has presided over naturalization ceremonies on the third Thursday of every month in his courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia.

He began his day as he normally does, slipping into his black robe. The prosecutor made a motion and the clerk administered the oath. As Judge Ellis began speaking on Wednesday, American Flags fluttered in the breeze, military aircraft buzzed overhead and the graves of Soldiers, some freshly dug and some from centuries ago, stood solemnly in silent testimony. For the 70 people who were gathered to be sworn in as U.S. citizens, it was the happiest day of their lives.

Judge Ellis had chosen to move his courtroom that day, from Alexandria to Arlington National Cemetery, to swear in the immigrants. His idea was to impress upon the new citizens, about the sacrifices that have been made for the freedoms they would enjoy as US citizens. This is the very first time in the 144 year history of Arlington National Cemetery that a naturalization ceremony had been held there.

“This is truly a wonderful day,” said Ellis, his voice breaking with emotion as he spoke about the virtues of citizenship, US history and the warriors who were buried around him. The ceremony was held in a white columned amiptheater that dates back to 1864, standing in front of a stone marker that bore the phrase “e pluribus unum”, that is on the Great Seal of the United States. Judge Ellis told the immigrants and their families, “It is a wonderful day for each of you, because today you will join the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Judge Ellis is very passionate about what it means to be a US citizen. That passion comes from his past. Judge Ellis shares a something in common with the immigrants. He too is an immigrant, who was born in Bogota, Columbia. Judge Ellis, at 68 is now approaching retirement and wanted to try something different, something that might be more meaningful, so he chose to move the ceremony to Arlington National Cemetery.

“I did it to honor our country’s warriors and to give the new citizens a sense for what makes this country great,” Ellis said. Judge Ellis made it clear that he didn’t want any politicians attending Wednesday’s ceremony. After administering the oath to the immigrants, Judge Ellis then took the time to greet each one of them personally. As he hugged a new citizens wearing a US Navy uniform, the Judge choked up.

Judge Ellis made it a point to tell one woman, who is from Iraq that he was honored that she chose to become an American. According to cemetery superintendent, John Melzler, this ceremony was very unusual, having been the first naturalization ceremony to be held on the grounds. He said, however that when the court asked permission to hold the ceremony there, they were very honored and said yes right away.

The people who became US citizens on Wednesday, came from a variety of countries, including El Salvador, South Korea, China, Mexico, Canada, Lebanon, Austrailia and Albania. According to federal law, immigrants who wish to change their names must appear before a federal judge. Of the 70 on Wednesday, 67 of them were adopting new names. One such immigrant, Chanh Vu, is a Vietnamese immigrant who immigrated to the United States following the fall of Saigon during the Viet Nam War. He proudly became a US citizens in front of his two daughters. He wanted a more Americanized name and changed his first name to Shawn.

“I’m the last member of my family to become naturalized. I guess I procrastinated long enough,” he said. He said that for him, having the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was especially meaningful for him, because, “this is where the people who served this country died for the freedom we always take for granted.”

The day in court began just like any other day in Judge Ellis’ courtroom, except there was no bench. Instead he stood at a podium. That alone let the people in attendance know that this wasn’t an ordinary day in court. US Attorney Chuck Rosenberg was in attendance and made the motion to the court that the name changes be granted. Judge Ellis agreed. The cleark administered the oath and Judge Ellis led the cheers of family and friends.

“Today you will become part of this country, and like two centuries of immigrants who have come to this country, you will enrich this country with your talents, your energy and your industry,” Ellis said.

“All four of my grandparents were immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants and so the opportunity to welcome some more is one I couldn’t pass up,” Rosenberg said.

After the oath of recited, US Army Sgt. Nicholas Richards led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a special day for Richards as well, as he too became a US citizen.

“I’ve been serving in the military for nine years and it’s nice to finally say I’m an American,” said Richards, a Jamacian native who applied for his citizenship while he was serving in Iraq.

I was quite impressed with the lesson that Judge Ellis was imparting to the new US citizens, by holding the ceremony in Arlington. What better way to bring home the idea of how their freedoms as American citizens was earned for them. It’s my hope that the ceremony was inspiring to each of the men and women, the new US citizens that day and I hope that it’s a lesson on US citizenship that they’ll never forget. I hope that as they go about their lives, they’ll frequently stop and think about that day at Arlington National Cemetery, think about the solemn rows of white stones, as they enjoy their new-found freedoms as American Citizens.

Washington Post


One Response to “A Lesson In U.S. Citizenship”

  1. Glen Aitken on June 16th, 2008 5:27 pm

    Judge T.S. Ellis III — what a hero, what a true American. Brilliant. What could possibly be more fitting than a swearing in at Arlington?

    As a Canadian who joined the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam (1964-67) I just wish I could have participated in this ceremony.

    Every American should look at these photos and see the pure joy on the faces of the new citizens.

    If only all our judges had the spirit and pride of this man.

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