Becoming as American as baseball 4,000 to swear citizenship at ballpark


It should be Americana worthy of Norman Rockwell: Thousands of Maryland residents in the stands at Camden Yards, feasting on hot dogs and popcorn, and belting out "The Star-Spangled Banner."

What's happening at Baltimore's Oriole Park this afternoon has nothing to do with who wins the American League pennant. But it is at least as vital to the future of the republic.

More than 4,000 immigrants are the players today at Camden Yards. They will be sworn in as U.S. citizens in what immigration officials call Maryland's largest naturalization ceremony ever -- and the first at the new ballpark.

The fans will be thousands of family and friends come to witness the event. It will begin at 1:30 p.m. and will include remarks by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and James A. Puleo, acting commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"Our policy is that naturalization be a meaningful ceremony for people and that it solemnize the occasion," said Carol D. Chasse, Baltimore district director of the immigration service. "For a lot of people this will be their first time in a ballpark, and they will always remember the day they became a citizen."

Immigrants from more than 120 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, will be sworn to an oath of allegiance by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis. The largest contingent of new citizens is from India. Other large groups are from Ethiopia, Iran, Jamaica, Korea, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, and Vietnam.

The simplified oath for children distills the day's essential message: "I will love and be true to the United States. I will support its Constitution, obey its laws, respect its flag, and defend it against all enemies."

Passing the test

All the adults have passed an oral naturalization exam that would test the mettle of many native-born Americans. Sample questions: Name Maryland's two U.S. senators. What are the basic principles of the Constitution? What do the colors of the U.S. flag stand for? (Stumped? Answers below.)

Most of the immigrants have spent at least five years as permanent U.S. residents to become eligible for citizenship. (Those married to U.S. citizens need wait only three years, and the waiting period is waived for foreign-born children adopted by U.S. citizens.)

Some have waited considerably longer.

Teng-Au Kuo of Colesville, who will turn 87 on Christmas Day, is thought to be the oldest immigrant becoming a citizen today. He has lived in the U.S. for 14 years.

Mr. Kuo's naturalization will be one more step in a remarkable odyssey that began in 1906 in a remote village of southwest China where his parents were rice-growing peasants.

As a boy Mr. Kuo walked 50 miles to the nearest town with an elementary school and lived there with a family. For high school, the penniless youth walked more than 400 miles and lived in a dormitory. Finally, he trekked for six months across China to attend Beijing University.

Originally an aspiring mathematician, Mr. Kuo became involved in the pro-democracy movement of the day and turned to political science. After graduation, he became editor of a political monthly. When the Communists came to power, he was forced to flee to Taiwan in 1949.

Now Mr. Kuo, a thoughtful man with a shock of white hair, finds himself living on the other side of the world in a spacious brick home in a leafy suburb. He has five children in the United States, all naturalized citizens, and about 30 U.S.-born grandchildren. He continues to write tracts on Chinese history for use in educating Chinese-American children.

Mr. Kuo is the last in his immediate family to sever political ties to China, partly because it is far easier to travel on a U.S. passport. His naturalization inspires a mixture of sadness and satisfaction in daughter Agnes Wu, a Rockville chemist.

"We Chinese are proud of being Chinese, but for practical reasons we all ended up here," she says. "We love America, not the same way we love China, but we do love America. You're caught in the middle. The environment provided here is superior in almost every aspect, but on the other hand the blood we have is Chinese."

An admirer of the U.S. political system, Mr. Kuo accepts this latest change in a life of upheaval philosophically.

But he worries that Americans may not value their freedom highly enough. "It comes too easily, too well-provided," Mr. Kuo says.

The youngest child to become a citizen at Camden Yards today is Paula Renkiewicz, a native Costa Rican who had her first birthday last month. Her sister Amalia, a 2-year-old born in Honduras, will also be naturalized.

The girls' parents, Marty and Roberta Renkiewicz of Crofton, adopted them this spring after a tortuous three-year process that cost more than $20,000 in travel expenses and fees to lawyers, adoption agencies and courts.

Ironically, the parents are both investigative agents with the immigration service. Their purview includes baby-selling, fraud and coercion in foreign adoption cases as well as other illegal immigration scams.

"It's going to feel very strange to be on the other side. It's pretty exciting," said Roberta Renkiewicz, 44, the immigration service's deputy assistant commissioner for investigations, who has attended many citizenship ceremonies as an agent.

Today's ceremony follows a May event in which 2,000 immigrants were naturalized at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House. Smaller ceremonies are held almost every week.

Big backlog

The immigration service is working off a substantial backlog of cases that resulted in delays of sometimes more than a year in qualified applicants becoming citizens. Mrs. Chasse, who became district director in July, plans to speed up turnaround time to four months.

With immigration at record levels -- nearly 150,000 immigrants came to Maryland in the 1980s alone, census data show -- the government has been hard-pressed to keep up.

Naturalizations in Maryland have climbed steadily from 7,000 in 1990 to nearly 9,000 last year to about 11,000 this year, including today's ceremony. And applications for citizenship in Maryland are at a record high -- nearly 10,000 in the first half of this year alone.

Now the answers to that citizenship quiz. Maryland's two U.S. senators are Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski. The Constitution's basic principles are liberty, equality and justice. The red of the U.S. flag stands for courage, the white for truth and the blue for justice.

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