Annual July 4 swearing-in offers hope to new citizens
About 50 new citizens, including Canada natives Mike and Suzanne Kelly, left, of Springfield, take part in a naturalization ceremony in 2012 administered by U.S. District judge Michael A. Ponsor on the lawn of the Hampshire Courthouse in Northampton.. Purchase photo reprints »
At the Center for New American's 2012 new citizenship ceremony, Northampton mayor David Narkewicz, right, poses for a photograph with Dorothy Verheyen-Cudjoe , her husband, Ghana native Kwasi Ehwi Cudjoe, and her mother, Miffy Salois, after Cudjoe and about 50 others became newly minted United States citizens. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor’s billowing black judicial robes come in handy when he officiates at the annual the July Fourth naturalization ceremony for new citizens at the Hampshire County Courthouse.
He tucks a handkerchief in one of its pockets for the part of the swearing in that chokes him up every time: when he calls out all the countries represented by the group, and one by one the people planning to become new United States citizens proudly — and sometimes shyly — raise their hands.
“There’s a great diversity of countries,” Ponsor said in a telephone interview Tuesday from his chambers in the U.S. District Court in Springfield. From 11 a.m. to noon Thursday, Ponsor will preside as 52 people swear an oath of citizenship in an occasion both solemn and joyous.
“It’s a tremendously gratifying thing in a professional life that has a lot of darkness,” said Ponsor, an Amherst resident. “It’s a sunny day in what can be a gloomy landscape of judicial responsibility.”
Ponsor said he never ceases to be moved by the bravery of the people who raise their hands to become new citizens of this country.
“I don’t know if I would have the courage,” he said. “To leave where you were born and where your roots are to come to a new place. That takes a lot of pluck.”
The ceremony, set to take place on the courthouse lawn at the corner of King and Main streets, has been held in Northampton on the Fourth of July for five years now.
Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz will be there to welcome the immigrants to Northampton. He said he plans to tell them “how proud we are that this ceremony is taking place in Northampton, in the town square, at our county courthouse.”
Narkewicz, who offered a similar welcome for the first time last year, said he found it so moving that this time around he told his wife, Yelana Mikich, “you’ve got to come to this.”
Mikich immigrated to the United States from the former Yugoslavia with her family and became a naturalized citizen in a similar ceremony in the Boston area when she was about 5, he said.
“Northampton prides itself on being a very welcoming place and it is fitting that we hold it here,” he said.
Laurie Millman, marketing and development coordinator of the Center for New Americans, which co-sponsors the event, said she has noticed that every year the crowd coming to look on increases in numbers, and she thinks she understands why.
“This American dream that everyone believes in still resonates,” Millman said. “It’s very reassuring.”
The new citizens now live in 25 communities across the state, including Amherst, Belchertown, Leverett, Northampton and Sunderland. But they hail originally from 28 countries including Argentina, India, Taiwan and Uzbekistan.
Naturalization ceremonies formerly had been held annually in Northampton until they were stopped around 1997. In 2009, the Center for New Americans began working with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services to bring back the tradition.
Millman said since then, people have come to count on it as part of their July Fourth traditions.
“People call an say, ‘Are you doing it again?’ ” Millman said.
Ponsor has presided over the event for four of the five years, and he has no qualms about putting on his robes on a day when court is not in session.
“It’s so moving, I just love to do it. It’s something I look forward to,” Ponsor said. “It’s a total Norman Rockwell scene.”
Millman said she believes the ceremony strikes a chord with many who attend.
“I think it makes everyone feel good. It’s just an event that makes everybody happy. It’s joyous.”
Festivities Thursday include Easthampton Boy Scout Troop 205, which provides the Color Guard, and singing by Evelyn Harris.
If it rains, the ceremony will move to Superior Courtroom 1. Afterwards, there will be music and light refreshments. The event will be broadcast on WTCC-FM.
The Center for New Americans is an education and resource center for immigrants in western Massachusetts with sites in Amherst, Northampton, Greenfield and Turners Falls. Services are free. They include English classes, employment assistance, family literacy activities, technology instruction and help to become a citizen.
Ponsor said one of his favorite parts of the day is when he shakes hands with each new citizen. “I like that connection,” he said.
Afterward, many of them ask him to pose for pictures, and he said he is glad to oblige them with a portrait to document such an auspicious day.