America at Its Best

Immigrants take the oath last year. Photo used courtesy of the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site.

It’s the moment that Sarah Perschall, chief of visitor services at the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site, always remembers. The one that gets her every time. The new citizens have received their tiny American flags, but they haven’t yet taken the oath. With the flag in their left hand and their right hand raised, they all stand together. Family members wipe their eyes, and the words begin: “Please raise your right hand and repeat after me…”

In the dappled light of the forest, with occasional birds chirping and cicadas buzzing, they promise to defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America. Perschall notes that most Americans never have this moment, when we “actually swear to the nation that we are going to uphold its laws in order for us to have the rights and privileges of citizenship … that these are our responsibilities.”  And so, she says, for all attendees, it becomes a reaffirmation of citizenship.

When the oath concludes, a round of applause fills the air, along with a sense, Perschall says, of “Wow, this is America at its best.”

The Park hosted its first naturalization ceremony eight years ago, in conjunction with the Citizenship and Immigration Service office in Charlotte. Since then, it’s been a yearly event. Between 20 and 30 people take the oath each year. For many years, it was the only one offered west of Charlotte, where people could celebrate the day near their home, without the hardship of taking a full day off work. And because the site belongs to the National Park System, it’s intrinsically American, Perschall notes. “So as they become new citizens, it is also their land and their new heritage.”

In the past few years, new citizens hailed from countries including Belarus, Brazil, China, El Salvador, Jamaica, Kenya, Laos, Mexico, Moldova, New Zealand, Ukraine, Nigeria, and Russia, among others. The same diversity is expected this year, though the names of the citizens are not available until immediately before the ceremony, given the rigors of the immigration process.

Perschall doesn’t hesitate to guess how Sandburg himself, the son of Swedish immigrants, might view the event. “We think he would be delighted!” she says. Sandburg authored an epic, six-volume biography of Lincoln, as well as countless poems about working people. He grew up in “a melting pot area of heavily European immigrants, about two hours outside of Chicago and in a railroad town,” Perschall notes. “He really tried to capture what the working-class life was for Americans — predominantly through a lot of the immigrant working class.”

The National Park Service’s Sarah Perschall confirms that the ceremony can be very moving. Photo by Rachel Pressley

The 2018 Naturalization Ceremony, a public event, will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 10 am at the outdoor amphitheater of the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site (81 Carl Sandburg Lane, off Little River Road in Flat Rock). For more information, call 828-693-4178 or see nps.gov/carl.

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