The Very Unnatural Process of Naturalization

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Special Report: America By the Numbers

Who We Are

•A Demographic Snapshot of America
The country continues to grow, with help from immigration

•The Very Unnatural Naturalization Process
A TIME editor describes what it's like to become an American citizen

•America's Long Debate on Immigration
A historian describes how our attitudes have and haven't changed

Where We Live

•A Geographic Breakdown
Compared with other developing countries, the nation is still just a vast prairie

What We Believe

• How We View God
Your view of God may shape your morals and politics

• Behind America's Different Perceptions of God
Researchers who divided religion into four view of God say that's a better indicator than denomination

• Denomination Nation
See where the largest religious groups live across the U.S.

How We Live

• America's Leisure Time
We have more free time than we did 40 years ago, but it doesn't feel that way

What We Buy

• How We Spend and Why
Experts say that as our population increases, we're going to feel an even greater pressure to spend

I might be the 300 millionth American. This is the kind of thought — pretty much the only thought — that can sustain you throughout a very long naturalization ceremony, most of which is spent waiting. All of which comes after a very long naturalization application process, most of which is also spent waiting — punctuated by a brief moment of excitement when you swear you have not engaged in prostitution, Communist party membership or genocide. That bit was fun.

I'm sitting in a courtoom with 249 other wannabe Americans, waiting to be declared an American, to put my hand in the air and say I am cured of my love for my pathetic excuse of a former nation and love America best of all. (For me, it's like saying that you have to stop loving your parents once you get married. Heaven forfend that you could love two countries, even if one just looks like the other but with fewer rivers and more wombats.) Someone's got to be the 300 millionth American, so why not me?

Mind you, that individual could also be one of the 94 Dominicans, 16 Jamaicans or 14 Chinese people — or at least formerly Chinese people — who are being naturalized with me, but I feel lucky. I have a letter from George W. Bush in my hand and a certificate with my name and picture on it waiting for me at the table at the front. They're not numbered, alas, but I have a suspicion that the U.S. marshals who are policing this ceremony are looking at me kind of special. (And not just because I keep pretending to cough as I sneak Mentos candies into my mouth. There's no eating while you're becoming an American. They say it's because of the mess it leaves in the courtoom, but I think it might be Homeland Security's small way of combating the obesity epidemic.) There's an air of apprehension about the place, as if when a name is called, suddenly balloons are going to drop from the ceiling, champagne will magically appear and some avuncular guy is going to emerge from the shadows and say "Congratulations Belinda Luscombe, you're our 300 millionth American. Here's a trust fund, a box of donuts and a really big SUV."

In a way it's probably a shame if I'm the 300 millionth American, because I'm not nearly as excited about becoming one as most of the other folks here. They're mostly beaming and chatting in hushed tones with all the family members they brought to watch a three-and-a-half-hour ceremony with no music, costumes or red carpet. Basically it's three hours of sitting and 15 minutes of picking up paperwork. As spectator sports go, this is up there with a visit to the DMV or an ice hockey game. I figure they keep it dull to provide contrast with with the moment of 300 millionth American unveiling, just like how Jim Carrey movies are so stupid so he can look more funny in them. Or maybe it's so dull because America only wants people who desperately want to become citizens. If you don't have the stamina, try another country, Bermuda is just down the ocean a bit.

It's not that I'm not excited about becoming American. I am. Sort of. I mean think of the advantages: Jury duty! Voting in primaries! Dirty looks from other nationalities! But the truth is that right up until I became an American, I was an Extraordinary Alien (Really, that's what my green card was called.) I could work and live in America and not have to stand for the national anthem. Ah, those were the days. You got to go on the short line at the airport but you didn't have to own up to being the same nationality as Mark Foley. Plus I probably had the same type of green card as Charlize Theron!

Finally, my name is called. I go up to the front desk to see a man called Carlos and say Hi Carlos and wait. And he says Hi Belinda. Of course, he knows my name, because I am the very special 300 millionth American. Or because it's on the form in front of him, just above my picture. Then I shake the hand of a judge. I walk back to my seat. I wait for the fanfare. The marshall eventually tells me I need to leave. But he says it with a wink. Outside the courtroom there's a crowd of people with pens and paper, who I think must be press wanting an interview. Actually they want me to register to vote. How would it look, after all, if the 300 millionth American — even the unacknowleged secret 300 millionth American — did not vote? Shabby.