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Sunday, November 14, 2010

The land of opportunity, but no guarantees

By JON TEVLIN, Star Tribune (Columnist)

One day, one building. Two courtrooms, two snapshots of the intricate American fabric of immigration.

She sat in the back row of courtroom 9 of U.S. District Court dressed in the traditional Muslim hijab, her hand pressed to her forehead as though she were fighting back pain.

The judge called a scrawny man in sagging jeans and an oversized white T-shirt to the podium. The woman leaned forward and took a deep breath.

On a November day that still felt like summer, four Somali men accused of participating in a nationwide prostitution and fraud ring appeared before a federal judge to see if they would be held in jail pending trial. The young men, accused of being members of the Somali Outlaws and Somali Mafia, are accused of running an interstate human trafficking ring that sold Somali girls -- one as young as 12 -- into prostitution.

When the young man got up to face the judge the woman lifted her head and gripped the back of the seat in front of her.

• • •

Six floors above, room 15, children played with toys in the hallway. Inside, 70 immigrants from Afghanistan to Panama, and maybe 200 supporters, listened to John Philip Sousa music, awaiting a naturalization ceremony. Some people held bouquets of flowers, others held balloons that read: "Congratulations." Dozens of people scanned the room with video cameras, capturing one of the most important moments of their lives.

Chief Judge Michael Davis entered the courtroom and in a booming voice announced: "Good morning! I will be presiding over this wonderful, wonderful ceremony today.

"Many of you come from countries where you weren't allowed to vote, or you were told how to vote," said Davis. Here, you are expected to vote he added. Davis mentioned the recount of the governor's race: "Your voice does matter."

They all raised their hands and began to recite: "I solemnly swear I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America..."

In the grand tradition of hoodlums from other American immigrant groups, the accused Somali gangsters had adopted colorful nicknames. Forehead. Homer. Fat Boy.

David Steinkamp, assistant U.S. attorney, began to rattle off the "extensive criminal history" of Fatah Haji Hashi, "Junior." Breaking and entering, abetting a robbery, marijuana possession, failure to appear for trials.

His family had come for the American dream, but Hashi, 23, was facing a nightmare of his creation. He was living with his mother. He was unemployed. He was heading to jail.

• • •

"I give up and surrender any allegiance to any king or queen," the new Americans said in unison. "And declare today that I am a true citizen of the United States of America, so help me God."

There was wild applause, cameras flashed and people from far reaches of the world hugged each other.

"Who is from Brazil?" asked Davis. A woman raised her hand.

Davis moved his shoulders. "I like to Samba, hey!"

"Some of you have nothing in common, except for one thing," Davis said. "You are all American citizens."

He told them of great opportunity, but also great responsibility.

"In return for the ample gifts this country gives us, I urge you to become actively involved citizens," he said. "Naturalized citizens play a crucial role in our society. This is not a perfect society, we are a work in progress."

Lee Greenwood's song "Proud to Be an American" kicked in. "From the lakes of Minnesota, to the hills of Tennessee," he sang.

• • •

Hashi stood at the podium.

"You are hereby remanded to custody pending transfer to Tennessee to face charges," said the judge.

The woman in the back pew put her head in her hands.

The land of endless opportunity, and absolutely no guarantees.

There were cookies and lemonade outside courtroom 15. The new Americans flowed into the hall, some with tears in their eyes.

John Flomo wore a freshly pressed pinstripe suit for the occasion. He had studied the Constitution and U.S. history to get here, and today was the payoff. Flomo, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, is from Liberia. His American wife and their daughter were beside him, beaming.

"It was a nice and inspiring ceremony, beyond my expectations," said Flomo. "I am here because of the fact that I'm free to express my voice as an individual."

He offered a broad smile: "I love the United States."

Through the window you could see protesters on the plaza below, wearing hoods and protesting the use of torture. It was the day before Veterans Day, which honors the men and women who made this crazy, astounding American day possible.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

Source: Star Tribune

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