Jewish World Review Jan. 26, 2004 / 3 Shevat, 5764
Debra J. Saunders
There are few experiences more humbling than
speaking at a naturalization service for 1,586 new
Americans from 110 countries. Naturalized citizens
have to work at being Americans: that is, they have
to get visas and green cards, live here legally for up
to five years, pass a test on American government,
submit to an interview in English if they're under 55 of
age and show they can write some English.
"We want to make sure they've undergone the
transformation from being a citizen of another country
to being an American," explained the Immigration
and Customs Enforcement official who pressed me
into speaking at a Jan. 20 naturalization ceremony at
Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco.
All that I had to do to become an American was to be
born. I can't match the two-boat Irish Saunders, who
crossed the seas, first to Canada and later to
Massachusetts, to forge a life in a distant land, or (on
my mother's side) the seafaring Pattons, who settled
in New England.
As my brother Jim told me as I struggled over what to
say to my new countrymen and women, "I don't think
there's anything more American than becoming a
But all I could only think of was "Starship Troopers"
the kitschy, 1997 sci-fi flick about a planet of giant
bugs attempting to colonize Earth. In the movie,
based on the book by Robert Heinlein, citizenship
must be earned through military service. While I
wouldn't want my country to adopt that rule, I see
that often citizenship given is undervalued, while
citizenship earned is held in esteem.
Hence, the revoltingly low, and still declining, voter
turnout. In 1960, 63.06 percent of the voting-age
population cast a ballot in the presidential election. In
2000, 51.3 percent of that population voted. Pitiful.
As it happened was it a coincidence or a ripple in
the time-space continuum? Ed Neumeier, who
wrote the screenplay for "Starship Troopers," and
Phil Tippett, who was the movie's master of special
effects, were in the audience at the naturalization
ceremony. They had come to watch Phil's wife, Jules
Roman Tippett, become a U.S. citizen. They, too,
had been thinking about citizenship a la "Starship
Neumeier noted that while he hadn't agreed with all of
Heinlein's ideas, he appreciated how natural
citizenship is often undervalued. Neumeier, who grew
up in San Anselmo "before George Lucas," said he
knows Marin parents who, like the civilian parents of
"Troopers'' character Johnny Rico, tried to stop their
son from enlisting, as they saw military service as "a
little blue- collar, a little-déclassé."
They "probably felt that since they made their
money, they didn't need to put themselves at risk,"
And, he added, "Are we acting spoiled? And do we
not participate because we don't think we have to?
Do we think we're too good for that?"
For her part, Jules Roman Tippett has lived here for
25 years, given birth to two American children and
built up a Berkeley company that employs 230
workers. While her Polish-born father was proud to
become a British citizen, Jules says she
procrastinated on becoming a citizen of her new
home. Now, she says, a huge weight has been lifted
Jules already has registered to vote, and unlike many
Americans, she's excited about it. "Otherwise, you
end up with a government that doesn't represent
you," she said.
Colin McDonald of Kenwood told a similar story. He
was in the 88th floor of the World Trade Center during
the first terrorist bombing in 1993 that killed six
people. On Sept. 11, 2001, he told me, "We realized
how fortunate we had been in '93 and that unless
pro-active measures were taken, these events were
bound to be repeated but on a more horrific scale."
That realization eventually led McDonald to the
Masonic Auditorium Jan. 20 to take his citizenship
oath. He, too, had lived in the states since the '70s,
married an American and fathered two American
kids, one of whom serves in the Navy at Guantanamo
Neighbors, he said, were "frantic, almost rude" at the
notion his son would serve in the military.
But, McDonald noted, miliary service "is everyone's
responsibility, as far as we're concerned."
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© 2003, Creators Syndicate