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Fields of Dreams: Judges Swear In New Citizens at Pro Ballparks

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Two of America’s most memory-laden traditions, the welcoming of new citizens and baseball—have come together this year to create a sense of community and diversity at stadiums across the country. In a distinctive celebration of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, federal judges are naturalizing hundreds of citizens at a dozen major and minor league ballparks.

As part of the federal courts’ annual, national initiative, these emotional naturalization ceremonies led by federal judges began in August and will continue through next week.

“What better place to welcome the newest members of our country than a baseball ballpark, where many of today’s players are newcomers themselves,” said Magistrate Judge Timothy Rice, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who helped arranged naturalization ceremonies with two pro baseball teams. “What could better symbolize the American dream than starting the journey of citizenship from home plate in front of thousands of your fellow citizens?”         

Constitution Day honors the anniversary of Sept. 17, 1787, when the nation’s Founders signed  the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia. Citizenship Day, also observed on Sept. 17, celebrates all citizens, whether native born or naturalized.

“There are times when we see the United States Constitution in action, and a naturalization ceremony is one of those times,” said Magistrate Judge Michael Newman, who serves in Dayton for the Southern District of Ohio. “Individuals begin the ceremony as applicants for citizenship; they leave the ceremony as new United States citizens with all of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, including the right to vote.”

Fans in two Midwest cities witnessed the largest ceremonies.

Some 148 people from around the globe took the Oath of Allegiance in the Cincinnati Reds’ outfield just before game time on Aug. 16. In Kansas City, Missouri, 388 immigrants took their oath in the stands, seated with family and friends, on Aug. 29. It was the first time the Western District of Missouri held a naturalization in a baseball stadium, and the first time the Kansas City Royals had hosted such an event.

The Royals treated each new citizen to complimentary seats and parking, and a team employee playfully led them in “Let’s go, Royals” chants.

“For many participants, this is the most important day of their lives, and they treat it as such,” said Chief Judge Beth Phillips, of the Western District of Missouri, who administered the Oath of Allegiance shortly before the Royals took the field. “But in a baseball stadium, the joyous atmosphere was combined with the frivolity of hotdogs, peanuts and Cracker Jack. The atmosphere was exuberant.”

But even at a ballpark, the heart of the ceremony remained serious. “You can’t participate in a naturalization ceremony without being humbled,” Phillips said. “While the names are read and their countries of origin are announced, it is hard not to think of the struggles and sacrifices that they have voluntarily made to become a part of our country and call it home.”

The Judiciary is celebrating Constitution Day and Citizenship Day along with other members of the Civics Renewal Network, a group of 33 nonprofit, nonpartisan national organizations that seeks to inform and engage citizens in civics literacy. The network provides high-quality, free classroom resources for civics education.

In recent years, the federal Judiciary has performed naturalizations at courthouses and iconic locations, including historic and national park sites.

In addition to bringing together two American traditions, the ballpark ceremonies added a special element: Fans in the stands could renew their appreciation for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship and share in the joy of new Americans.

“In all my years as a baseball fan, I have not experienced a standing ovation that lasted as long as that given to the 20 new citizens when they were naturalized at the Dayton Dragons’ baseball stadium,” said Newman.

“I have watched many standing ovations for home runs and winning games,” Newman added. “This standing ovation, to honor new citizens who completed all of the legal requirements for citizenship, began when they went out onto the field and continued until all 7,000-plus of us in the stadium recited the Pledge of Allegiance together. It was an amazing night that I will never forget.”

Judge Rice arranged a Sept. 15 ceremony with the Philadelphia Phillies, at which Chief Judge R. Sanchez will administer the Oath of Allegiance. Rice said the Phillies organization and the minor league Auburn Doubledays were extraordinarily supportive.

“The Doubledays arranged a catered dinner at the ballpark for the new citizens, invited all the local dignitaries to attend, and had each citizen throw out a baseball to one of the players to start the game,” Rice said. “Seeing a game begin with 20 new citizens lined up to pitch to a professional ballplayer was an impressive sight.”

Rice added: “I am always touched by how meaningful the moment is for the new citizens. For many, naturalization is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. We take so much for granted in our country, especially our freedom and our justice system. For the fans, it is a chance to glimpse a special moment that few get to experience.”

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