This week I had the opportunity to attend a naturalization ceremony and see LWV-Milwaukee County (LWV MC) volunteers in action as they helped new citizens register to vote in Wisconsin. It was an experience that filled me with hope.
I have long been proud of the important service provided by LWV MC for new citizens, who come to Milwaukee from all over the state to take the oath of citizenship. The registration event was seamlessly organized and coordinated by Linda and Tom Neubauer, with a team of volunteers who assisted the new citizens in an eminently nonpartisan and professional manner.
The ceremony itself was conducted by the Honorable Nancy Joseph, a federal magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Judge Joseph welcomed the 48 candidates for citizenship warmly and read the names of the 27 countries from which they hailed. She asked the candidates to raise their hands when their own home country was named. The countries were diverse, including nations from all continents except Australia and Antarctica. Some are wealthy countries and others poor, some are torn by civil strife while others are as strong as the United States.
The Judge also welcomed my colleague Ellen Penwell and me, as representatives of the League of Women Voters, and let the candidates know that the League would be ready to assist them in registering to vote following the ceremony.
Judge Joseph said that naturalization ceremonies are her favorite part of her job. She said she would love to hear the many personal stories that brought the candidates to her courtroom. Noting that there would not be time for all to tell their stories, Judge Joseph said she would share just one. It was about a man who arrived in the U.S. from Haiti in January 1965. He had with him the address of the friend who lived here and three American dollars. What was more significant, the Judge said, was what the man did not have with him: his eight children, ranging in age from 10 months to 12 years, and his pregnant wife. He had no English skills, just the hope and dream of building a home for himself and his family in the U.S.
Four years later his wife arrived, but still not the children. The couple “worked, prayed and cried,” and over time they were able to buy a house and to become U.S. citizens. Eventually they brought their children, one at a time, to their new country. One of the children was Judge Joseph herself, who was 10 months old when her father left Haiti and 8 years old when she joined him in the United States. Like her siblings, she worked and studied and eventually became a citizen.
Then Judge Joseph led the candidates in their oath and welcomed them as U.S. citizens. She encouraged them to shake the hand of the citizen sitting next to them. After that the Judge pointedly directed her remarks to “my fellow citizens.”
Judge Joseph urged the candidates not to leave their stories behind, but rather to share them with their children. She also reminded them that voting would be both their right and responsibility as citizens, acknowledging that some of them came from countries where they could not vote. She welcomed Ellen Penwell to read a statement from the League congratulating the new citizens and inviting them to register to vote at our table in the Atrium.
Following the ceremony, the new citizens lined up to shake the Judge’s hand and have family photos taken with her. Ellen and I stood outside the door to offer informational brochures to the new citizens as they emerged. Seeing the pride and joy of the families, and then helping the new citizens to register vote, was an experience I will treasure forever. The sense of community in the courtroom represented the best instincts and principles of our diverse and welcoming nation.
By Andrea Kaminski 12/8/17