On a recent balmy Monday afternoon, a crop of new American citizens, their family members and friends gathered on the lawn of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site for a naturalization ceremony.
Charlie Hyde, president and CEO of the Benjamin Harrison Site, noted the location’s importance: “President Harrison opened Ellis Island and was a strong supporter of African-American voting rights, so it holds significance to us and it’s a great location to welcome new citizens.”
The special Independence Day-themed ceremony has been held there since 2003. Other naturalization ceremonies are held throughout the year at the Federal Courthouse.
“We’ve always been a country of immigrants. It’s pretty moving when you think about the nearly 100 different stories of people who are becoming citizens by choice. They decided to move their families, move their careers, lives — and from all the spots all around the world, they chose our country and went through this process to become citizens. This is a real personal commitment that they’ve made, and we think it’s important to applaud that,” said Hyde.
“We are all here to celebrate you,” said Judge Sarah Evans Barker, the magistrate presiding over the ceremony. “The tent is a good symbol, a good metaphor for what we’re doing today. It’s open on all sides, welcomes all people, there are no walls … it welcomes each person as you come and find your place.”
Each year approximately 680,000 people, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, become United States citizens. The naturalization process, which takes an average of six months to complete, begins with determining one’s citizenship eligibility, completion of the N-400 form (also known as the naturalization application), a biometrics appointment (if deemed necessary by UCIS), a civics test, an in-person interview and, finally, pending the successful completion of all steps, an invitation to participate in a naturalization ceremony.
Monday’s citizenship event included 97 participants from more than 30 countries around the world and carried with it a tone of reverence and gratitude as many speakers noted the growing concern and uncertainty over immigration rhetoric coming out of the White House.
“We draw inspiration from your courage and your stamina. … This is not the first time our country has been divided on important issues,” said Barker on the topic of immigration. “But the important thing is that we continue to find ways to bridge those gaps.”
Many other political and civic leaders were in attendance at the ceremony. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett was among them and provided stirring remarks.
“I am a descendant of immigrants,” he said, referring to his own ancestors who came to the United States 10 generations ago. “It is a remarkable journey. … We are in many ways too far removed from that journey to fully appreciate it. A generation or two go by and we forget the sacrifices made so that our family could stand on American soil, so that our family could benefit from the American dream. … Each of you reminds us of that story.
“You are America and no one, no one can take that away from you.”
A host of children decked out in red, white and blue walked through the audience and passed out small American flags when a roll-call for each country was made. The young helpers shook hands and looked each person directly in the eye, per the judge’s request. “We are the first to welcome them into the country, and we want them to feel most welcomed,” she said.
When his birth country was called, Jose Lusende beamed.
Lusende, who immigrated to America from Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), was one of 11 new citizens from the continent of Africa.
“(I have) mixed emotions, because part of it is the excitement of being a citizen of the United States of America. Part of it is also the fact that the Congolese constitution makes it that you have exclusive nationality, so if you get (citizenship) from another country, like in my case, I had to give that up,” he said. “It was a long journey, but we finally got here.”
Lusende’s journey first began in 1974 when, as a young boy, the late Muhammad Ali came to his home country for the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” match against George Foreman. In a June 2016 interview with the Recorder, Lusende recalled being one of the young children chanting “Ali bomaye” through the streets as The Champ rode by. “Ali touched the Congo. It was a phenomenon. It transformed cultures,” said Lusende. “Many of us, like me personally, came to America because of that … because at that point, I was introduced to America. Later on, my dream was realized because of that.”
Nearly 20 years later, Lusende packed up and left for the United States and has lived here ever since. Three months ago, following a conversation with his wife Gertrude, he decided to pursue citizenship. Lusende cited having more freedom to travel internationally with his wife and two children, continuing civic unrest and government corruption in his home country, and a desire to participate firsthand in voting as reasons for his decision.
“This ceremony means freedom, it means opportunities, it means that the sky’s the limit. It means being included in the political part of this country,” said Getrude Lusende.
Monday, for Jose Lusende, held a sense of magic for several reasons. A London-based film crew from the BBC followed him, capturing footage for a documentary film titled “From Chicago to New Orleans: A Journey Through the Heart of America,” and well-wishers stopped him often to take selfies, shake hands and offer him words of encouragement.
The timing of it all seemed divinely inspired.
“I left the Congo on June 13, 1991, and I arrived to America on June 16,” he said. “The letter inviting me to this ceremony was written on June 13 and arrived to my home on June 16.”
The American flag tie he wore, complemented by a sharp navy blue suit and a red flower pin on his lapel, was a gift from a fellow church member. The tie once belonged to a WWII veteran, a man who earned a Purple Heart for his service following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“I’m wearing this (tie) with a lot of pride, and a sense of responsibility that some people gave (their) lives to make this country free so that many of us can enjoy it,” said Lusende.
The veteran’s story inspired him, so he bought miniature American flags for each of his fellow congregants, which he passed out at the service the day before his naturalization ceremony. “I told them, display it in a prominent place so that when you look at it, you can think about these seven words: Never ever take this country for granted.”
On Monday, Lusende, who until recently was known legally as Lusende Lusende, also took back the name given to him by his late father.
As a child, he was forced to abandon his first name due to a policy enacted by military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko banning all “Christian” names.
“He’s excellent, Jose Lusende,” his young son exclaimed from the background, a fitting declaration to which the proud father replied, “Thank you so much.”
Jose Lusende, a new American citizen, takes an oath during a naturalization ceremony. (Photo/Diana Penn)