After years-long journey, American citizens at last

In a federal courthouse in Baltimore, people of widely diverse backgrounds attain their goal.

July 04, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

It had taken years, so Marie Faucher could wait an hour more to be granted a right most of us hold by birth.

In a few moments, the Haitian immigrant would pledge her allegiance to America with men and women from such countries as Albania, Armenia, and Trinidad and Tobago in a room at Baltimore's federal courthouse usually reserved for teaching jurors how to be jurors.

She would then listen to a federal judge talk about her own ancestors from Alsace-Lorraine.

And, finally, she would rise and walk to the front, where an immigration officer would hand her an embossed certificate awarded for her knowledge of American government and devotion to her adopted country.

"I am here because there is so much opportunity," Faucher said, reflecting on her long journey moments before the final ritual. "You can go and ask for a job, and if you are right, you get it. In Haiti, it is all about who you know.

"Becoming a citizen now," she added, "is the right thing to do."

In an era where immigrants are eyed warily by homeland security authorities amid the war against terrorism, it can be easy to overlook the lengthy, largely unseen and sometimes bittersweet process that ends with citizenship. On a single day in Baltimore, the ceremony brought together a crowd as diverse as an American husband of a Russian woman and Faucher, who still longs for the country she left behind.

Last year, 12,318 legal permanent residents of Maryland became naturalized citizens, more than double the number a decade ago. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars that followed have apparently done nothing to slow the rising tide. Today, 50 Marylanders are to be sworn in during an Independence Day ceremony in Annapolis.

All new American citizens must renounce their loyalty to their home countries in exchange for owning blue U.S. passports and gaining the opportunity to register to vote - chief reasons, immigrants say, why they endure a years-long process to become naturalized.

The 65 immigrants like Faucher who became Americans in Baltimore last month were under no pressure to change. Each carried a green card to signal their legal and permanent immigrant status.

To take the next step takes work. The residency requirement, usually at least five years. The paperwork. The filing fee. The test on U.S. history. The background check. The inevitable delays.

And that's why Dwayne Lare says he's lucky.

His citizenship came not by filling out forms and clearing fingerprint checks, but by the random luck of being born in the United States.

His wife, however, is a different story.

Sitting with their 2-year-old son, George, Lare, 44, a diesel engineer in Washington, recalls a life-changing visit to Russia in April 2000.

"St. Petersburg, it's the Venice of the north," he says. There was a benefit beyond the sights: a chance to meet single Russian women.

"I thought, you know, they were all linebackers," he says. "I was wrong."

He saw the slender Natalya at a dance. They talked. When he returned to Creagerstown in Western Maryland, they e-mailed often and spoke on the phone.

Six months later, on Oct. 28, they wed.

This day, they are here, child in tow and U.S. citizenship within Natalya's grasp.

It almost wasn't to be.

"She missed the food," he said of his bride's early days in Maryland. "And she missed her family. They don't have much over there, but they have each other. They have such tight friendships."

But the tug of Americanism, its opportunity and promise, he said, was stronger. Natalya found Russian bread and maybe a chance to become a teacher.

"You don't realize how good we have it," he says, "until you see it from the other side."

For Faucher, the path to this courthouse started a decade ago, when she left a small Haitian town she fears she may never see again.

She is a nail technician, but her hands are unadorned.

Her family - her husband, Jean, and their two children - live in Gaithersburg. Jean, also from Haiti, became a citizen two years ago.

It has taken Faucher a little longer.

"The fee was a little expensive," she says.

With that, she bends down and plants a motherly kiss on Gregory, 5, who complained that his sister, Lindsey, 3, poked him in the eye. She brings her head up slowly, taking time to round back to her earlier answer.

"Well, to be honest," she says, "I never wanted to give up being Haitian."

It's a beautiful place, she says. Memories linger of its warm waters, its cool mountains, its tables filled with fried plantains and red snapper.

But the violence, she says, her lilting voice trailing off. She said she hasn't seen her parents in three years.

"My sister went back last year," Faucher says. "When they were coming out of the airport, they slowed down because there was a pothole in the road. Two men came up."

The men kidnapped and robbed the family, who were unharmed. Among the losses was the money Faucher had sent to the needy workers in her parents' grocery store. Later, when her brother tried to go to the U.S. Embassy to get a tourist visa, he was robbed, too.

"I can't be proud to be Haitian anymore," she says sadly.

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