Citizen Kennedy: Proudly American

General Contractor Arnold F. Kennedy Hails from Brazil

By JAMES KINSELLA

You know when Arnold F. Kennedy is coming down the road. He's driving a blue Ford Econoline 250, with yellow letters hand-painted on the van's side that say, "Arnold F. Kennedy, General Contractor." Then there's the phone number and the fax number, and a big four-petal flower that looks like a lotus but more likely is meant to be a clover. An American flag on paper is taped inside the back window.

Then there's Arnold Kennedy himself, sitting in the driver's seat, the back of his van filled with tools, a man with a round face, a soft voice and an easy smile, the kind of guy who'll stop on Beach Road in Oak Bluffs to give a pedestrian a ride into Vineyard Haven.

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But what you might not know about Mr. Kennedy is that he was born 43 years ago in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, or that this past April 19, in a federal court hearing in Boston, he became an American citizen.

"I take the opportunity and hold it," he said, holding up his fist as if to grasp something, "because I don't like to take the opportunity and throw it away."

These days, Mr. Kennedy, a resident of Oak Bluffs - he likes the harbor - builds houses as a general contractor. He organizes plumbers, electricians and carpenters to get the job done. His right-hand man is Carter Borden of Vineyard Haven, a licensed tradesman for whom Mr. Kennedy did some work 18 months ago and who saw Mr. Kennedy as a good man for whom to work.

Mr. Borden said Mr. Kennedy, through his contacts in the Brazilian community on and off-Island, has access to carpenters whose skills range from framing to cabinet work.

"We're qualified to do any kind of construction," Mr. Borden said.

But Mr. Kennedy's path to life as an American living on Martha's Vineyard was by no means a certain or easy one.

The son of a lawyer and a teacher, he was given the name Arnold F. Marreiro at birth. He played as a professional soccer player and served as a sergeant in the Brazilian army. After his discharge, he worked as a guard for a private concern in southern Brazil.

He married a woman with Italian parents. Following their marriage, they moved to Italy for five months, and then to Toronto, Canada.

There a friend suggested that the couple, who by then had an infant daughter, move to the Boston area.

They did. Mr. Kennedy came into the United States in 1994 on a three-day visa. A visa is a document issued by the federal government that allows the applicant to apply for admission into the United States under the conditions of that visa.

He found work at a bakery, whose owner agreed to sponsor him for a green card, which would signify legal permanent residency in the United States. (The card is nicknamed for its color, green for many years, although it is now white.) According to Shawn Saucier, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a bureau within the Department of Homeland Security, an employer is one of the main routes to a green card; the other is a family relationship.

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After working a couple more jobs, he went to school to learn the painting business, and became a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, District Council 35, with 4,000 members in New England. He pulls an identification card from his wallet issued to him during the construction of CMGI Stadium in Foxboro, a structure completed in 2002.

Mr. Kennedy, who had split up with his wife, subsequently learned from a friend about a nice girl who would be at a big party in Oak Bluffs.

The romance lasted 10 months. But Mr. Kennedy's relationship with the Vineyard, which started more than three years ago, turned out to be for keeps.

Mr. Kennedy also had decided to make his relationship with America permanent. He applied for American citizenship.

He traveled to Boston for his citizenship interview and test.

He walked into the offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and went into a waiting room. A department representative came into the room, greeted him, and escorted him into the interview room.

Immigration wants to determine three main things: whether an applicant for citizenship can read, speak and understand English; whether the applicant is of good moral character; and whether the applicant can demonstrate an attachment to the U.S. Constitution, the document on which the nation's government is based.

The conversation that ensues when the applicant is escorted from the waiting room, Mr. Saucier said, really is the start of that day's evaluation, as the department representative judges how conversant and comfortable the applicant is with English.

The department also reviews the applicant's past admitted and recorded conduct, such as whether the applicant has been convicted of felonies or has engaged in an affair that broke up an established marriage, to help determine whether the applicant has good moral character.

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Finally, the applicant is required to pass a citizenship test, typically 10 questions drawn from a standardized list of 96 questions about American government and civics. Questions that could be asked include: "What are the colors of the flag?" "What is the Bill of Rights" and "Who is the chief justice of the United States?"

Mr. Saucier said the department has been revising the test to make it less of a trivia quiz and more a test if the applicant understands the concepts of American government and history.

In a related inquiry, the department also seeks to determine whether the applicant's past or present associations and actions demonstrate an attachment or an antipathy toward the United States. Membership in a Communist party or in a party affiliated with terrorism can be unhelpful.

A short time after the interview, Mr. Kennedy received a telephone call from immigration, who told him that his application for citizenship had been accepted. He was scheduled to be sworn in with hundreds of other immigrants at a federal court hearing April 19 in Boston.

"I was so happy," Mr. Kennedy said. "It was a big opportunity."

At the hearing, Mr. Kennedy and the other immigrants, at the invitation of the judge, raised their right hands and spoke the following words:

"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."

Then everyone in the room clapped and cheered.

As naturalized citizens, Mr. Saucier said, the immigrants acquired all the rights and responsibilities of American citizens.

"It means you're a member of this society," Mr. Saucier said. "It means you understand this country, this government."

As part of becoming a citizen, Arnold decided to change his name from Arnold F. Marreiro to Arnold F. Kennedy. He decided to take his name in honor of John F. Kennedy, the American president who was born outside Boston in 1917 and who was assassinated seven months after Arnold was born.

"I know the politics of the United States," Mr. Kennedy said. "John Kennedy is a nice president before. He gives a lot of opportunity for many people. This is why I have this name."