From the Federal Bench Personal Perspectives on Naturalization

Terryl Rushing

Article by Terryl Rushing Featured Author


Amid the serious, and often tragic, events that unfold in federal court, naturalization ceremonies have a happy outcome for all of the participants, as well as the judges and court staff. That makes for a lot of happiness, since federal judges naturalized more than 360,000 immigrants in 2013. Likely, the judges that presided over those ceremonies throughout the country would say that it was their favorite proceeding of the year; that is certainly the sentiment of the Judges in the Southern District of Mississippi, where six naturalization ceremonies were conducted in 2014. When Judge Jordan presided over a ceremony in July, he told the group at the outset, "I simply love naturalization ceremonies." Judge Carlton Reeves, who presided over a ceremony in January of this year, believes, "This is by far the most rewarding and gratifying thing we do. In civil cases we usually have winners and losers, and in criminal cases, it can really be sad. Naturalization ceremonies are like adoptions in chancery court, everyone comes to court excited, looking forward to the court proceeding and everyone leaves extremely happy and excited." Judge Ball said that, from his vantage point on the bench, "I am looking directly into the faces of the applicants, and it is an emotional experience to see the look of excitement and anticipation on their faces." After the ceremony, when he meets the applicants and their family members, their pride in their new citizenship "enhances my own sense of patriotism." Judge Anderson likes to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., "We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now."

Presidents of the United States who have spoken at naturalization ceremonies feel the same way. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson began his speech by noting, "This is the only country in the world which experiences this constant and repeated rebirth. Other countries depend upon the multiplication of their own native people. This country is constantly drinking strength out of new sources by the voluntary association with it of great bodies of strong men and forward-looking women out of other lands." Later, in 1984, President Ronald Reagan told a group of new citizens, "And so, today you join a happy country that is happier for your presence. You're adding your voices to the chorus, and in doing that you've become part of a great unending song." He went on to thank the group for "the compliment of your new citizenship." More recently, President Barack Obama said, "No other nation in the world welcomes so many new arrivals. No other nation constantly renews itself, refreshes itself with the hopes, and the drive and the optimism, and the dynamism of each new generation of immigrants. You are all one of the reasons that America is exceptional. You're one of the reasons why, even after two centuries, America is always young, always looking to the future, always confident that our greatest days are still to come."

In fact, three Judges in the Southern District owe their status as citizens to immigrant parents: Chief Judge Louis Guirola, Jr., whose parents came to this country from Cuba; Judge Sul Ozerden, whose father came from Turkey, and Judge John Gargiulo, whose father came from Italy. They each enthusiastically told the story of their parents' experience, both the positive and the negative. It was obvious from talking with these Judges that they take great pride in their parents' courage in creating a new life in a strange land and making the sacrifices that made their children's achievements possible.

Judge Guirola's parents, Louis and Ruth Amelia Perez Guirola, arrived from Cuba in the late 1940's, brought here by Louis's job as a merchant seaman. They settled in Baltimore, where the Judge was born, and they became citizens in the mid-1950's. Neither spoke English, but Louis learned it through his voracious reading habit. Ruth Guirola, who "understands more than she speaks," is more comfortable with Spanish, so Judge Guirola grew up speaking Spanish at home. He also remembers the Cuban traditions that his parents kept alive for their children – particularly, his family's celebration of Nochebuena, or "the Good Night" – the Latin American feast on Christmas Eve. In accordance with custom, presents were not distributed then, or even on Christmas Day, but on Ephiphany, to celebrate the arrival of the Magi with their gifts. When I asked Judge Guirola whether his Mother made Cuban dishes at home, there was a long silence, followed by a sound that roughly resembled "Mmmmmmm." I believe that meant "yes."

The biggest challenge for the Guirolas, predictably, was understanding American customs, for which they had no point of reference. High school parties and dating in couples were completely at odds with their traditions. Judge Guirola relates that his parents clearly understood the importance of an education, but the mechanics of going to college, such as the application process and living in a dorm, were unknown to them. Despite those challenges, the Guirolas obviously imparted their work ethic and educational values to their children. There were three boys in the family — one is a high school teacher in Miami, where the Guirolas still live, and the other brother, formerly a cruise ship captain, now captains a 600-ft. oil exploration ship in the Gulf of Mexico.

Judge Guirola is not just the child of immigrants; his grandmother, who died at the age of 103, became a citizen when she was ninety. His parents are still living – Louis is eighty-nine and Ruth is ninety-three – and they were able to attend the Judge's investiture. Judge Guirola describes the moment where he got up to speak, and his eyes met his father's. "I just went blank," he says, as the enormity of the moment struck him, and he became emotional. Judge Guirola's family valued their United States citizenship, and his family's experience makes the Judge appreciate his citizenship all the more.

Judge Ozerden's father, Halil, left Adana, Turkey, with $100.00 in his pocket to come to this country, intending to go to school and become an American. When he arrived, Halil knew no one, and he had no money for school. He met his wife, Candace, in Montgomery, Alabama, and they married and moved to Mississippi. There, he attended the University of Southern Mississippi, where, as a graduate student, Halil set a record that still stands when he scored six goals in a soccer game. Judge Ozerden remembers that the family's budget during those years was tight; they lived in student housing, and his parents shared a third-hand Volkswagon Beetle. Despite his modest financial beginning, Halil earned a Ph.D. in Psychology and served for many years as a Professor at USM.

He became a naturalized citizen in 1971, and, in 1992, Governor Kirk Fordice appointed him to the State Board of Psychology. Halil was active in other community affairs, as well, serving as a youth soccer coach and referee and as an active member of the Gulfport Rotary Club. When he died in 2006, the Mississippi Legislature adopted a Concurrent Resolution Commending the Life and Dedicated Community Service of Dr. Halil Ozerden of Gulfport, Mississippi, who had lived in the area for nearly forty years and who "embodied the American dream."

Judge Ozerden remembered his father teaching him and his sister, who now works in advertising, about the history of Turkey and the Middle East, as well as some traditional games. He also recalled the stories and the study of literature – in particular, "One Thousand and One Nights." Unfortunately, Halil passed away just a few weeks before Judge Ozerden was nominated to the federal bench. Nonetheless, through his own achievements, Halil had achieved the American Dream. Judge Ozerden once said of his father, "He worked very hard to achieve that dream. I learned more about being an American from him than I have from anybody else."

Judge Ozerden continues to look on his father's example of appreciating the privilege of American citizenship, and he never takes his own citizenship for granted. As a result, presiding over naturalization ceremonies is his "very favorite thing to do." The ceremonies, where he sees how excited the participants are and how hard they have worked to become citizens, have a personal meaning to him because of his father.

Like many of us, Judge Gargiulo has Irish ancestry on his mother's side, a couple of generations back. (My aunt once repeated to my children an Irish saying that they still love, "There are only two kinds of people in the world: The Irish and those who wish they were.") His French ancestry is similarly distant. The Judge's father, however, came to this country from Naples, the youngest of five children of a brick mason. Thomas Gaetano Gargiulo spoke no English when he arrived in this country. He learned it in the public school system in Brooklyn, New York, and he became a naturalized citizen in the 1940's. Thomas's success story is best told in the Judge's words.

"My father was an intelligent man. At the time, and in his community, a good trade for someone with intelligence was that of a tailor. As such, he was destined to become one, and even apprenticed with a tailor. The tailor ultimately told my grandparents that, although my father would make a fine tailor, he believed my father possessed greater potential, and he suggested to my grandparents that they consider sending my father to college. My father was the only person in his family to attend college. Upon graduation, he was commissioned as an officer in the United States Air Force. He retired as a combat-decorated B-52 pilot, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel."

Thomas Gargiulo instilled a strong sense of patriotism in his children, inspiring by his example of "giving back to the country that provided so much." So strong was that example that each of his sons served as a military officer: the oldest son is a retired Army Major, the next is a retired Army Colonel, the third is a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, and the fourth served as an Army Captain. Judge Gargiulo is currently a Lieutenant Colonel in the Mississippi Air National Guard. The Judge's sister serves in an equally noble field, as an elementary school teacher.

Although Thomas spoke Italian with his parents and siblings, his children only learned a few phrases. Ironically, because his military career took the family to Northern Africa, the children became fluent in French and could converse with their father in that language, but not Italian. Thomas took obvious pride in his ancestry, becoming a founding member of the local Italian American Heritage Society and remaining active in that organization. His biggest accomplishment was graduating from college, and his family took great pride in him as the only family member who was formally educated. Thomas stressed the value of an education to his children, reminding them that it is a privilege to be educated.

Although both of his parents have passed away, Judge Gargiulo remarked on their influence on his view of citizenship: "I feel blessed to have parents who had such close ties to cultures that, if things were different, I may never have been exposed to. I feel that coming from such a diverse background produces an inherent acceptance of other cultures. I am most affected in that I've been raised appreciating our freedoms, and I am fully cognizant of the fact that many are denied what we take for granted."

All of the Judges in the Southern District find conducting a naturalization ceremony to be both joyful and moving. For some, however, there is a distinctly personal kinship to the process. In that respect, they are like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose Puerto Rican parents moved to the mainland during World War II. In speaking to a group of new United States Citizens in 2011, she encouraged them to be active in American civic and political life, but also to celebrate their background and native cultures and teach them to their children. Her final admonition to the new citizens was one that might be echoed by Judges Guirola, Ozerden and Gargiulo. As part of their civic responsibility, Justice Sotomayor told the new Americans that, when they are called for jury duty, "don't make excuses."