Inside the Dome Theater at The
Institute of Texan Cultures, a doctor
from Pakistan speaks eloquently
about the American dream.
A shaft of light illuminates Irfan Agha
within the shadows and stillness of the
360-degree-venue. Before him sit more
than 200 men, women and children from
50 nations. Behind him, U.S. District
Judge Xavier Rodriguez smiles proudly.
Two colorful flags frame the moment.
The naturalization ceremony is bathed in
red, white and blue.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Agha said,
"America is a unique country. It is a country
where, in the words of William Ward,
if you can imagine it, you can achieve it.
If you can dream it, you can become it.
Only in this country could the scion of
a broken family, at times subsisting on
food stamps, go to the best universities
of the land because he was smart, and
eventually rise to become the president
because he was able.
"Nowhere else in the world is this possible,
I guarantee you. This is still the land
of hopes and dreams, and there is no
other idea of a country like this, perhaps
since the days of the Roman Republic."
On Feb. 23, Irfan, his wife Fauzia and
their two children completed a remarkable
journey. They became U.S. citizens
almost 15 years after leaving Pakistan with
belongings packed in suitcases and aspirations
filling their hearts.
Each year, more than 2,000 people
become naturalized citizens at the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC),
a museum on the UTSA HemisFair Park Campus. Eight times a year,
the museum turns into a federal courthouse with petitioners taking
an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution.
As a setting for this ceremony, the Institute of Texan Cultures serves
logistical and symbolic purposes. The John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse next door
lacks the space to accommodate the event, which draws an average
of 200 petitioners, plus hundreds of their relatives and friends.
The ITC also offers a rich showcase of ethnic history. The museum
tells the story of settlers from Germany and Spain, Mexico and France,
and celebrates the cultural diversity of Texans, whose ancestral roots
reach around the world.
The cultures on exhibit in the ITC mirror the faces of the new
Americans. At a February naturalization ceremony, the roll call of
nations included Egypt, Iraq, Mexico, New Zealand, Canada and the
Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as dozens more.
"We are a community partner," said JoAnn Andera, ITC director
of special events. "When we do something like a naturalization ceremony,
it brings home what our mission is. We are about people, and
UTSA is definitely about people. UTSA is
a leader within our community."
The ceremony is a moving symphony
of patriotism. A junior ROTC color guard
enters with the American and Texas
flags. A military band from Fort Sam
Houston plays John Philip Sousa’s Stars
and Stripes Forever. A video shows images
of broken and triumphant soldiers
on 26 screens. The voice of the late John
F. Kennedy intones, "Ask not what your
country can do for you—ask what you
can do for your country."
Judge Rodriguez leads the petitioners
in an oath. A collective "I do" fills the
Dome Theater. The judge congratulates
the new U.S. citizens.
Amid the rain of applause there
are smiles and tears. Each immigrant
has come with a story, narratives that
weave across nations to reach a single
destination—a desire for citizenship.
Claude Le Saux shared her journey
with fellow petitioners. She left France
in 1996 to complete post–doctoral-studies
at the University of Hawaii. Le Saux
never went back.
She moved to Texas and raised a family
in San Antonio. A 16-year-old-daughter
and a 12-year-old-son attend St. Mary’s
Hall college preparatory school. Today,
Le Saux is a professor of medicine and
cardiology at the University of Texas
Health Science Center. "After spending
so many years here," she explained, "I
wanted to become part of where I live."
Naturalization ceremonies at the ITC date to at least the early 1980s.
Over the years, presiding judges have also administered the oath of
citizenship in some unusual circumstances. Some immigrants became
citizens on their deathbeds. In 1999, when U.S. Magistrate Judge John
Primomo swore in 107-year-old-Mexican immigrant Ruperta Urresta
Hernandez at a Fort Sam Houston-area-home, Hernandez became the
oldest naturalized citizen in U.S. history.
Irfan Agha is only 44. Yet he felt the same pull toward naturalization
as Hernandez had. As Lee Greenwood’s Proud to be an American played on overhead video screens, his eyes and those of many others
lifted to watch a slideshow of photos.
The ceremony completed, Dr. Agha and the other brand-new-citizens left the auditorium to continue their pursuit of the American