Pledging allegiance to a new flag in 'Citizen U.S.A.'


When immigrants say, "I love America" and "God bless America" in accents from other countries, those words take on the ring of poetry.

To watch people who desperately want to become Americans is to be reminded of some of the country's basic ideals. If you need a break from televised fireworks, watch HBO's "Citizen U.S.A.: A 50-State Road Trip," airing, most fittingly, on Monday, July 4.

Alexandra Pelosi's film is an unapologetic valentine to the United States.

"I genuinely believe the U.S. government could not pay anyone to make a nicer documentary," Pelosi says. "Every documentary ever made is about something wrong with America."

This, indeed, is about what is right with America, why millions flock here, to be free in every possible way.

The one-hour film opens with Pelosi's very personal reason that inspired the film. Her husband, Michiel Vos, a Dutch TV correspondent, who co-produced this documentary, had come here legally, married Pelosi, and once they had sons, decided to become naturalized.

"I have to become a citizen because I can't be a foreigner in my own family," he says.

Vos is shown reciting the pledge with President Barack Obama. Pelosi, a daughter of former House Speaker and current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, took her husband to the event so he could meet the president.

"After my husband went through this process, he felt like something really changed in him, and that he was no longer a foreigner," Pelosi narrates in the film.

Over lunch in a Chelsea restaurant, Pelosi explains how she spent a year on the film, plotting trips on a giant map of the country and leaving her sons occasionally with her sister in Texas.

Pelosi set out to capture the essence of why people from all over the world would renounce their birth land to adopt this country as their homeland. To become a citizen, one must be a permanent resident for three to five years; read, write and speak English, be of good moral character; pass a civics test; and take an oath of allegiance to the United States of America.

Considering the vitriolic dissatisfaction endemic among many born here, it's refreshing to watch those who desperately want be a part of the nation.

Pelosi hopes Americans who watch "feel a little grateful and just realize how good we have it here," she says.

The film shows various ceremonies in different states and how genuinely thrilled people are once they take the oath of citizenship. What emerges is a reason for hope.

Pelosi chronicles new Americans such as Pimpreya June George, born in Thailand. She lives in Sioux Falls, S.D., and invented a smartphone application called "Intro to Math." There's Harinderjit Ahluwali from India, who has tobacco stores, despite the fact that they're restricted in his religion. "I have to do something," he says.

Famous naturalized citizens include Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state. Originally from Prague, she came to the United States in 1948.

"My father used to describe the difference," Albright says. "When we were in England, people couldn't have been nicer. They said, 'Your country has been taken over by a terrible dictator. You are welcome here, but when are you going home?' When we came to the United States, people said, 'Your country has been taken over by a terrible system. You are welcome here, and when will you become a citizen?' "

Some newcomers revel in freedoms many Americans rarely consider. Roy Correia from Portugal marvels at the clean, available water. When he became a citizen, he celebrated by flying a U.S. flag on his front lawn.

Sam (no last name given) from Afghanistan says what he likes most about America are "girls! You can take her hand and kiss on street, and no one asks what you are doing."

Hossein Alizadeh says, "I stay here because I am a gay man. I cannot go back to Iran because of my sexual orientation." Straight and gay couples walking together without fear, he says, "is the most beautiful thing, and most people don't realize what a blessing that is."

Only when pressed will new citizens say what they don't like about being here, and it is never a problem with the principles or laws of the country. Rather it's often wondering why those born here do not appreciate what they have.

After traveling around the country and meeting so many new citizens, Pelosi considers what surprised her the most.

"You expect to find immigrants in New York and California," she says. "You don't expect to find them in Montana, Mississippi and Utah."

She has traveled around the country for other documentaries, but this one hammered home a few points.

"It really is a big country, and there are not a lot of nonstops," she says, referring to the many flights she had to take.

Meeting people from so many nations --more than 1 million people from 150 countries become citizens annually -- Pelosi says she's struck by what so many new citizens share.

"These people chose to become citizens," she says. "This was a dream for them."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad