Experiencing Immigration and Citizenship

More than sixty other applicants stood to be sworn in as citizens by Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz at last December’s ceremony in Cincinnati.

More than sixty other applicants stood to be sworn in as citizens by Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz at last December’s ceremony in Cincinnati.

Last December, in a courthouse in Cincinnati, my wife, María, became a citizen of the United States. Sitting there and watching her and others take the Oath of Allegiance, I thought of how the ceremony was marking the end of a long journey for us with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This had begun in 2003, when we applied for a tourist visa for her to meet my family, and, two years later, for a “Fiancé(e) Visa” to enter the United States. In 2005, after getting married, we went to an interview to obtain “conditional permanent residence” (one of the great ironic phrases of the whole process). In 2008, we returned for an interview to remove her conditional status. Finally, last year, we filed a concluding batch of paperwork, and she took the in-person examination necessary for citizenship.

We did most of this on the cheap and without a lawyer. Over fifteen years, we spent about $10,000 in application fees and expenses necessary to accumulate photographs, letters, transcripts, official statements, documents, translations, notarizations, certifications, biometrics, and proofs of medical history. Considering this costly odyssey, when I watched Maria raise her hand to swear allegiance, I couldn’t be sure if the tears welling in my eyes were formed out of love for her, pride for our country, or sweet relief from the incessant pangs of bureaucracy.

Magistrate Judge Litkovitz, next to my wife, María, and my family, shows her grandparents’ Certificates of Naturalization from the 1930s and 1940s.

Magistrate Judge Litkovitz, next to my wife, María, and my family, shows her grandparents’ Certificates of Naturalization from the 1930s and 1940s.

Feeling this conflicting mix of emotions—for family, for nation, and for red tape—and looking around the room at those magnificent citizens-to-be, I felt as if I were catching a rare and fleeting glimpse into the heart of the United States, something that I had not experienced in the previous ten years of studying American history at graduate school, nor now as a professor of history at Miami. That odd combination of patriotism, on the one hand, and cold-shouldered bureaucracy, on the other, left me with a new appreciation for the nebulous but strong connection between self, neighbor, and country. It still keeps me thinking.

After the miniature flags were put away that day, and as the spring semester began barreling towards all Miami faculty in late January, an idea dawned on me: why not give students a small taste of this experience, this unique view into the American past and present, one that simultaneously challenges and reaffirms a sense of national pride? If we are a “nation of immigrants,” shouldn’t we all know what it’s like to be an immigrant?

This question is problematic, of course. Focusing on immigration obscures (yet again) the contributions and presence of indigenous nations and of enslaved peoples arriving by force in the Americas. I would have to compensate for this erasure through lectures connecting immigration to dispossession, slavery, cheap labor, expansion, settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and xenophobia, among other topics. This strategy would help mitigate historical blind spots while also allowing students to wrangle with what I had felt that December day in a Cincinnati courtroom.

The idea of making students take the citizenship examination is not new, either. Recently, states of varied political stripes have required high school students to take it, but here they’re missing something critical. It’s not the examination, itself, that offers a unique view into America; it is the examination as part of a larger process, culminating in sitting side-by-side with people from around the world, all of whom have shared the painful and long naturalization process and stand together during the ceremony, reciting the Oath of Allegiance.

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This spring, in my class on U.S. History after the Civil War, I therefore decided to replicate as closely as possible the entire immigration process for my students. They would experience in some small way the frustrations of filing paperwork, the sting of administrative indifference, the nervousness of an in-person interview, and the anxiety of orally taking the actual citizenship examination, along with a small sense of relief, and perhaps pride, at completing the unit, culminating in the reenactment of a naturalization ceremony.

The whole process would hinge on the citizenship ceremony at the end of the semester. For this, students would need to feel the gravity of the situation, conveyed to María and me through the courtroom setting and the presence of a Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz. On a lark, I wrote to Judge Litkovitz, asking if she might consider visiting campus to give a talk on her experiences holding the gavel, and to administer a mock naturalization ceremony for students of History 112. Why not? To my great surprise, she accepted the invitation! Not only that: she provided a copy of the script used in her courtroom. April 26 would be the date that my students would become “citizens” of the United States.

The overall unit accounted for ten percent of students’ final grades, and my first inclination was to make it, like applying for naturalization, an all-or-nothing process. This would force students to have something at stake, and make the unit about something more than humoring their professor. Grading proved to be a challenge, though. I wanted to be tough and uncaring, as the system itself can seem, yet I hoped that all of my students could participate in the ceremony at the semester’s end. As a compromise, I decided that if a student stumbled or failed a form submission at any point, they could have a second chance without penalty. It would be the citizenship examination that would be unmercifully pass/fail.

Their first step required submitting a double-sided half-sheet, “Form M-101,” which asked basic information of the applicants. Most importantly, they had to choose a real or assumed name along with a country of origin. The vast majority of students (“immigrants”) selected a country connected to their own ancestry. Though this form was quite simple, my graduate assistants (“immigration officers”) and I (“central processing”) rejected about a third of submissions for a number of reasons, from the understandable to the bone-headed: an applicant forgetting to sign the form, for example, or writing “United States” as his/her country of origin. Yes, really.

One day in lecture, while holding up the half-sheet form, I explained that only two-thirds had passed this first stage successfully. I then unfolded the actual thirteen-page USCIS form, taped end-to-end, that real fiancé(e) visa applicants must complete, many in a second language, and discussed the fear of misunderstanding a question or answering it incorrectly, this in an effort to impress upon them the challenges that applicants face, with their lives, or their loved ones’ lives, on the line.

The second submission, “M-102,” was meant to extend the nagging experience of filling out forms, including requiring applicants to provide a black-and-white passport-like photo with their applications. As a teaching strategy, the form also began to prepare students for the citizenship examination. M-102 asked fifteen random questions from the USCIS book of 100 prompts. Applicants could do this open-book and at their leisure at home, but the practice sent them a warning signal that it was time to get serious about studying. When I announced in class that, with M-101 and M-102 finished, the students had completed all paperwork for the immigration process, I could hear sighs of relief. It felt good to know they were starting to relate to those of us who had been through the process.

As relieved as they might have been, the unit was now taking a more serious turn, in that each student was required to visit me during office hours to discuss her/his application. This terrified some, but I wanted them to feel the anxiety and nerves of sitting down with a live person indifferent to their personal struggles. M-Number, please? Country of origin? Name? After formalities, I asked each student three or four sample questions from the USCIS book, furthering their preparation while also sending a warning signal to those who couldn’t answer basic civics questions in front of their professor. I was direct, yet I also reassured those who could muster only blank stares or awkward giggles. Whether they answered correctly or not, I stamped each interviewee’s M-102 reply with a red-ink “APPROVED” and signed it, explaining that they were not to lose this form. It would be their ticket to take the examination. (Some did misplace the form, and would lose 2.5% of the unit grade. Papers are critical to the immigration process, after all.)

April 4 was examination day. Those who had successfully submitted the two forms and had been interviewed could take the citizenship examination. Applicants had to have their “APPROVED” sheet and their “M-Number” handy as they waited in the classroom. There was an atmosphere of final examinations that day, and I was reminded of sitting in the USCIS waiting room in Cincinnati with María months earlier, nervously waiting for her to be called to the exam window.

Students waited for their M-Number to be displayed before going to a table in the back for their official exam.

One by one, a random M-Number was projected on a screen, accompanied by a “ding” sound. The identified applicant had to walk to the back of the classroom to sit (some actually kept standing) with one of six immigration officers (my three graduate assistants plus three other MA candidates helping that morning). Students, like real-world immigrants, had to answer ten random questions from the 100 provided in the USCIS book. To pass, they had to answer six of the ten questions correctly. To our pleasant surprise, 91 out of 94 applicants passed the examination. And though we had told them previously—in an effort to make them feel like they had something at stake—that they would have only one shot at the exam, we did allow for a second attempt for those who failed. (One passed the second time and was elated; he received half-credit for the unit. Pass/Fail be damned.)

What a great group of fierce “immigration officers”! Left to right: Amanda Lawson, Kristin Osborne, Edward Strong, Stephen Richardson, Adam Bruno, and Zach Logsdon.

With the exams completed, our attention turned toward the mock naturalization ceremony. In my lecture two days beforehand, I summarized various pieces of legislation in the 20th century that shaped the course of immigration in America: the Immigration Act of 1924, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, as well as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order in 2012. This historical background helped give students an understanding of the disconnect and tension between the United States as a refuge for the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” in the nineteenth century, and the stringent and shifting immigration requirements of today. I wonder how many students thought of poet Emma Lazarus’ words in the Statue of Liberty that Friday. I think of it often, conflicting as it does with the money my wife and I have spent, our fifteen-year journey, and the various requirements that would be exclusionary to 99% of the world’s population.

What must students have thought upon learning that the U.S. Marshals Service had swept our classroom and would be accompanying Judge Litkovitz? Or, on April 26, upon seeing the Magistrate Judge herself? It was especially nice and unexpected to have a Miami link to Judge Litkovitz and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. Her clerk, Eden Thompson, accompanied her and was a history major and 2014 graduate from Miami. What might students have thought of this quasi-personal connection to the greater machinations of the U.S. immigration process? If they were anything like me in Cincinnati, my students would have been trying to interpret what they were observing: a call to order, all citizens-to-be rising for the judge, the sound of the gavel, or perhaps the list of 33 countries represented on the back of our immigration program. What kind of distinctions would make a ceremony like this official?


The ceremony went as scripted: with introductory remarks from the judge, an exchange between her and the USCIS representative (yours truly). I vouched for the preparation and readiness of the applicants, and this was confirmed by their immigration officers (graduate assistants). Personally, I found this moving in Cincinnati, that the cold-blooded bureaucrats my wife and I had feared for fifteen years were suddenly speaking on our behalf, confirming that she was fully qualified and prepared to be a citizen. I therefore inserted into the script a statement from each of three immigration officers along the lines of, “Your Honor, I am [insert name], a graduate assistant for History 112, and I can confirm that applicants from Sections EA and GA have met the criteria for citizenship.”

We modified the script in two other ways. First, to address the historical blind spot caused by focusing on immigration, I read a statement crafted with assistance from the Myaamia Center on campus to “acknowledge that many Americans came here by force, as with slaves predominantly from Africa, and that Native Americans also lost their traditional homelands to an expanding United States. We therefore must recognize, as Miami University does, that we are located within the traditional homelands of the Myaamia and Shawnee people…”

Magistrate Judge Litkovitz presides over the naturalization ceremony for students in HST 112.

Magistrate Judge Litkovitz presides over the naturalization ceremony for students in HST 112.

Second, I wanted students to feel the international nature of the United States and of Miami. We had a few special guests deliver welcoming messages in their mother tongues: Mariana Ivanova, Assistant Professor of German at Miami (representing Bulgaria, and planning to apply for citizenship next year); Juan Carlos Albarrán, Senior Lecturer of Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami (representing Cuba, and having become a citizen in 2005); Wietse de Boer, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Miami (representing the Netherlands, having become a citizen in 2012); and lastly John Salukombo, an undergraduate student at Miami and (surprise!) a fellow student of HST 112, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who had become a citizen last year. With these special guests, I hoped that a mostly-American, mostly-white history class at Miami could feel enveloped in the wider world. And by that I mean the world that is the United States.

In addition to these slight modifications, the regular script recreated the mix of emotions I had hoped students might feel, of having a “number” and yet being an actual person with an important history. In a part of the ceremony that acknowledges applicants, each student had to rise, one by one, and speak into a microphone, “My name is [name], I am number [X out of 89 applicants], and I am from [country of origin].”

One applicant stands to verify his number, state his name, and identify his country of origin.

One applicant stands to verify his number, state his name, and identify his country of origin.

To close the ceremony, and upon taking the Oath of Allegiance, newly minted citizens then approached Judge Litkovitz to receive their “Miamified” naturalization certificates, based on the original design by USCIS, with a firm handshake and congratulatory greeting.

Each successful applicant received a “Certificate of Naturalization” that mimicked the design (down to the choice of font and color) used by USCIS. Reproduced with the permission of Gianna Burns.

What were the students thinking? On the day of the ceremony, they appeared pensive and quiet, if respectful, due to the formality of the proceedings. Were they moved? Or were they bored? Any professor can confirm the difficulty of reading an audience on occasion, especially one at the survey level. To gauge this, I distributed an anonymous online survey, and about half of the class responded. From a 1 (“did not enjoy it at all”) to a 10 (“loved it”), the responses averaged 8.0. All but one respondent recommended repeating the process the next time I offer HST 112. This was all encouraging feedback (and, I confess, a relief), but two comments revealed that at least some students had felt the complex mix of emotions I had last December:

  • “At first, I found the assignment to be very tedious and annoying. However, as it progressed I began to realize the purpose of the assignment and came to have a better appreciation of the immigration process. The immigration ceremony was the perfect way to end off the assignment.”

  • “I enjoyed the whole unit that we did on immigration/naturalization because it put things into perspective for me. Since I was born a citizen of the U.S. I never really thought much about immigration or realized how fortunate I was to not have to go through such a difficult, costly and lengthy process. This is why I enjoyed the unit so much, because I learned way more about our country’s immigration/naturalization than I learned before. I also thought it was fun and enjoyed the hands on learning component.”

(Considering adopting this idea in your own classroom? Read all anonymous student feedback via the full Qualtrics report here.)

In closing, I especially want to thank those who participated in the ceremony and the entire process itself (listed below). Indeed, this post is partly intended to document an activity that required the good will of colleagues and the financial support of the department. Most importantly, though, I want to single out Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz, who took time from her busy schedule to drive an hour to Oxford, give a talk, and then preside over a ceremony that she has done more than fifty times previously. Her participation confirms, for me, the judiciary as a unique strength of American democracy, and I thank her for her commitment to it, and for sharing this special moment with my wife in December, and again with my students last month.

Special Thanks To

Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz

Eden Thompson

U.S. Marshals Service

Mariana Ivanova

Juan Carlos Albarrán

Wietse de Boer

Zach Logsdon

Adam Bruno

Stephen Richardson

Amanda Lawson

Edward Strong

Kristin Osborne

Karon Selm

Miami University Department of History

Miami University Photography and Video Production