By the time Denmark native Kirsten Plate arrived in Chicago in 1968, she had already lived in Iran, England and the Netherlands, working as a bartender, nanny, and au pair. When she took a job promoting Danish food products, the chance to travel to the United States came with it, and she jumped at the opportunity. Though she moved back and forth between the US and Denmark, she eventually chose to settle in California. In the early 1970s Kirsten became a permanent resident with a green card.
Over the next 40-some years Kirsten worked as a nursing supervisor and obtained her real estate license. She ran Thermo Dynamics, a contracting business specializing in controls and boilers for which she studied and received her own three HVAC licences. She joined the Rotary Club and AAUW. Kirsten traveled to Third World countries to assist in cleft palate surgeries through the Rotary Club's Rotaplast humanitarian organization; in her home, she raised money for the Fistula Foundation and Alliance for Smiles.
Becoming a US Citizen isn't cheap, quick, or simple. Not every country permits dual citizenship; for natives of those countries, the only avenue is to renounce their homeland's citizenship entirely. Filing the initial paperwork, along with a lengthy list of supporting documents, costs $595 plus $80 for a biometric test. (There are fee waivers available in some cases.) There is a civics test and a personal interview at the US Citizen and Immigration Services office (the closest one is in Sacramento). The process takes months to complete successfully. It isn't a decision made lightly.
Until September 1, 2015, Denmark did not permit Danish citizens living abroad to have dual citizenship. When that changed, Kirsten applied for US Citizenship. Why take the step now, when she'd been living comfortably as a permanent resident?
"Voting. The one thing that bothered me all these years was that I could not vote."
I was invited to witness Kirsten's Naturalization Oath Ceremony in Sacramento, held downtown at the elegant 1927-built Sacramento Memorial Auditorium.
When I arrived about 7:30 AM, it was clear from the crowds and tents that something important was happening. Family and friends were directed to wait in one line; people being sworn in to another. A couple of men at tables were loudly hawking display folders for the certificates of naturalization.The plaza was lined with tents staffed by volunteers from political parties waiting to sign up new voters (I was asked three times if I was registered to vote).
We had been told to arrive at 8:30 AM but the actual ceremony didn't start until nearly 9:50. The time was filled with a series of announcements and instructions to the oath takers, mostly concerning signing up to vote, getting a new passport if needed, and a great emphasis on updating Social Security records to indicate their new status as American citizens. Family and friends were directed upstairs to the balcony where we watched a steady stream of almost-Americans file in and find their seats on the floor; along with paperwork they were all holding small American flags.
All naturalization ceremonies contain the same elements as spelled out by the USCIS; it's the personal experiences of the participants that make it anything but regimented. When the ceremony began, an agent from the California Secretary of State's office welcomed us in English and Spanish; she said that among the 880 people from 80 countries being sworn in that morning was her uncle from Mexico. A world map was projected onto a screen onstage; as a representative flag popped up on the map, the number of people from each country was announced (the "call of countries"), including 23 Fijians, 2 from Honduras, 1 from the Czech Republic, 2 Egyptians, 1 Bhutanese, 2 from Sierra Leone, 164 from Mexico, 14 Canadians, and 2 Danes.
All 880 people took the oath at once:
"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God."
I met Kirsten on the front steps of the Memorial Auditorium; she immediately registered to vote.
She was very young when Nazi armies occupied Denmark, but Kirsten has never forgotten. "It totally amazes me how some Americans take everything for granted. Soldiers are out there dying - they're fighting for you and for your way of life, and you can't be bothered to go put an cross on a ballot?"
For more information about becoming a United States citizen, see the website of U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services