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Circus Citizenship - 2002-03-10

English Feature #7-34743 Broadcast April 30, 2001

Seventy-five children adopted from foreign countries recently became American citizens amid the props, scenery and performers of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Here is more on today's edition of New American Voices.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the greatest show on earth…"

The traditional welcome to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus during its annual visit to Washington greeted the adopted children and their families as they arrived at the D.C. National Guard Armory. Among the first to arrive was the Zimmerman family, comprised of mother, father, grandmother, and two-and-a-half-year Nicole, adopted two years ago in Russia. Mrs. Zimmerman thinks the children's citizenship day at the circus is a great idea.

"Oh, I think it's wonderful. Frankly, I've never been to a real circus before myself, so it's for us as much as it is for Nikki. I think she'll love the circus. She sees it on TV, and we read books about it, and so on, and I think it's a great way to do it."

Hoping to make the citizen swearing-in ceremony more festive and meaningful for children, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service came up with the idea of holding the event at the circus five years ago. Robert Shofield, the assistant director of the Washington District Office of the INS, says the idea has been a hit.

"Every year we get more and more requests to participate, and actually, this will be our biggest group so far. Tonight we have about sixty-five families with about 75 children."

The children, aged from two to thirteen years old, came from fourteen countries from around the globe: Bulgaria, Cambodia, Chile, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Moldova, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam. The naturalization ceremony itself followed the usual protocol: the singing of the national anthem, an inspirational speech, the calling of the countries and names of the new citizens, the administration of the oath of allegiance.

Given the venue, however, there were some variations on the usual theme. The backdrop for the ceremony was the middle ring of the three-ring circus, hung with flourescent lights and criss-crossed by wires. As he read the roster of children's names, the INS representative was flanked on one side by four clowns with bulbous red noses and huge feet, on the other by a bevy of female acrobats in sequined costumes. Workmen in overalls calmly went about their business, sweeping floors, fixing mats, and placing the wooden risers around the rings in preparation for that evening's performance. And the circus ringmaster, in blue riding coat, shiny black boots and top-hat, towered over a group of fourth-graders from a local school that led the new citizens in reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag.

Pledge of Allegiance

Sitting in the front row, her huge black eyes drinking everything in, was three-year-old Sim, decked out in a blue dress and pearls and with a sparkling blue butterfly with trembling wings holding back her bangs. Mark Beauchamps, a consultant from Northern Virginia, and his wife adopted Sim two years ago in a small Vietnamese village outside Hanoi. Mr. Beauchamps believes that the citizenship ceremony is an important milestone in his daughter's life.

"I think it's terrific for both parents and kids. Fun for kids, and it's fun for parents. And it's a very important day in her life. We've been looking forward to it for a long time. It's something that we will memorialize through pictures, and hopefully some day she'll understand the significance of it. It's a very big deal."

The ceremony had a special significance for Gino Tossi, the father of a 13-year old daughter, Zhibek, adopted in Kazakhstan, and 9-year-old son Dima, adopted in Russia.

"My father came from Italy in 1935. He was nine years old. Almost the same age that Zhibek was, she was just a few months shy of being nine. We adopted our second child two weeks ago, Dimitri, and he's almost nine also. So I think we're starting a tradition in the family, there's something about America and the number nine that's good luck."

As the son and father of immigrants, Gino Tossi speaks from the heart when he talks about the role of immigration in American life.

"Oh, that's what I think America is all about, the new immigrants. That's what gives America its strength."

The midwestern state of Iowa -- which actively seeks immigrants to settle there -- has developed a handbook for communities receiving new immigrants. Next week you'll hear more about this handbook and its helpful hints.