I had a sobering thought recently when I heard that the citizens of Emmen, Switzerland (pop. 27,000), had been permitted to decide which of the 56 immigrants living among them should be granted citizenship--voting in an election that had some characteristics of fraternity rush week. It occurred to me that if the citizens of St. Joseph, Mo., had been given similar power in 1910 or so, my family would probably have lost in a landslide.
Let's face it: my people weren't even all that popular back where they came from. That's why they left in the first place. No, my grandparents would never have made the cut, and under the Swiss system of not granting automatic citizenship to native-born descendants of immigrants, I might still be standing in line trying to get my green card renewed.
In Emmen, a Lucerne suburb, eligible voters received a booklet that included not only pictures of each prospective citizen but also information on his financial affairs and even his hobbies. I can't see my forebears scoring any points in the hobby section. My great-uncle Benny did grow tomatoes in his backyard, and I had a great-aunt who liked to spend her spare time nagging. Otherwise, I can't remember that crowd having any hobbies, unless you count comical attempts to speak English.
In Switzerland the first step of naturalization is handled on the local level, and lately a right-wing party has led an effort to make the decision by popular ballot. The view of political analysts on what the central issue of the immigrants' election would be was borne out by the Emmen results, which cleared eight of the 56 applicants: if an immigrant is from Italy he has a chance and if he's from the Balkans he doesn't.
The first thing an American would think of, of course, is how to finagle this system. Maybe you would move to a part of Switzerland that is soft on Montenegrins. If you had one of those Yugoslav names with a paucity of vowels, you might sprinkle in a few, and list your hobbies as boccie playing and fine-tuning your grandma's lasagna recipe. Or maybe, in order to reassure voters that you're harmless because culturally you're already Swiss, you could list your hobbies as eating heavy food, reminding others to be punctual and responding to attempts at humor by frowning and saying, "Is that meant to be funny, or what?"
If Switzerland were more like America, in fact, there would be web-sites to help you design your resume for the booklet given to voters. Sooner or later, advising immigrants would be an off-year fallback for campaign consultants, who would plaster the sides of buses with advertisements like VOTE FOR ZLATKO CVTJAJ--NOT AS CROATIAN AS HE LOOKS.
I assume all that is against regulations in Switzerland, a country renowned for regulations. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that in Switzerland you can't legally change your name unless you're a citizen. And you probably have to win naturalization approval in the place your family was originally registered. That would mean St. Joe for me, although I've never lived there. Whenever an immigrants' election was scheduled, I'd show up, still trying to figure out what would make me seem American.