Immigration remains a divisive topic in the nation's political circles, but that debate - much of it mean-spirited - has done little to quench the desire of individuals from other nations to come to the United States to seek personal freedom. Once here, most happily fulfill the legal requirements to earn the citizenship that they firmly believe will lead to better lives for themselves and for their families. That part of the American dream remains highly viable. Its power and its attraction were on display in a crowded federal courtroom in Chattanooga on Thursday.
More than 100 people representing 35 countries were naturalized in morning and afternoon ceremonies that were both solemn and joyous. U.S. Chief District Judge Curtis Collier, speaking before a standing-room-only gathering at the first of the ceremonies, told those about to become citizens that "This is a special day for you. It will go down in your lives along with your birthdays and anniversaries." He struck a responsive chord.
Many in the crowd listened intently to the jurist, nodding in affirmation of his words. They were equally solemn as they recited the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, listened to the Choo-Choo Chorus perform "The Star-Spangled banner" and heard remarks from U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. Once the ceremonies were concluded, though, cheerful smiles and tears of pleasure united new and old citizens in common bond.
Becoming a citizen requires significant investment. Many of those involved in Thursday's ceremonies had lived in the United States for at least five years before starting the six-month application process. That procedure can be intimidating. It includes biometric testing, in-person interviews, background checks and mandatory tests of U.S. history and the political process. It is a fair test and process. Citizenship should not be free for the asking.
Many immigrants actively welcome the responsibilities that citizenship requires and bestows. Their willingness to follow immigration and naturalization rules and their acceptance of a process that requires an investment of time rather than the pursuit of quick gratification are a potent reminder that those who earn their citizenship often treasure it more than those who receive it at birth.
The United States, thankfully, still is a beacon of hope for those from other lands where opportunity for better and freer lives is restricted. The time-tested immigration and naturalization process - the culmination of which was on display Thursday in the courtroom at the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building, - serves the best interests of this nation. It is a reminder, as well, that the zeal for citizenship by those who meet the legal requirements for it is welcome affirmation of America's ideals and way of life.