President Trump’s immigration policies aren’t slowing down 15,000 people who, in the lead up to Independence Day, became or will soon become U.S. citizens.
One such Independence Day-themed naturalization ceremony took place Tuesday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where hundreds of onlookers packed into the James A. Gray Jr. Auditorium to watch 47 people from 35 countries become naturalized citizens. A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) representative commented to attendees that she had never seen such “energy” and “reception” for a ceremony.
“If you are ready to become an American citizen, raise your right hand and repeat after me,” said Leander Holston, USCIS’ Charlotte, North Carolina, field office director. Holston led the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance, which requires participants renounce and abjure “all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty” of whom they were a subject or citizen. Participants pledged the flag for the first time as citizens, and turned in their green cards for their naturalization certificates.
It was emotional for many participants who cried and stared down at their naturalization certificate in seeming disbelief, smiling as they held up their certificates for their family members in the back of the auditorium to see.
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The participants who spoke to Rewire expressed “gratitude” for the ability to obtain citizenship, commenting that it had been an arduous process, but one they were willing to endure so that they could travel abroad and vote.
Alexandra Theresa Adjo Amehime, a former citizen of Ghana, told Rewire it took her eight years to become naturalized. Jonorys Laporte, a former Dominican Republic citizen who participated in Tuesday’s ceremony, said obtaining citizenship was a ten-year process for her. She doesn’t think “most people understand” how long it takes.
“I’m so grateful for this opportunity. It did take a long time, but I’m excited for the ways I can now contribute to this country,” Laporte said.
The disparities of the immigration system were on full display Tuesday in North Carolina. In High Point, 30 minutes from the naturalization ceremony, family members of Juana Luz Tobar Ortega hosted a Fourth of July cookout at Republican Sen. Thom Tillis’ office.
Ortega is believed to be the first person in North Carolina history to seek sanctuary in a church. As of May 31, the mother of four has lived in Greensboro, North Carolina’s St. Barnabas Episcopal Church after receiving an order from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to leave the country. She has been in the United States for 24 years.
In the weeks since, Minerva Garcia, a Winston-Salem mother of three mixed-status children, has taken sanctuary at Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro after being given until June 30 to leave the country. Garcia has called North Carolina home for nearly two decades.
In a press release, Ortega’s family said Tillis has avoided a one-on-one meeting with them to discuss their mother’s case, so to “make it easy” for him, they brought a cookout to his office in hopes “the senator and his staff will join them for a late lunch.”
“We know he’ll be back here in his district, we know he has been given the articles and news reports from around the country about my mother,” said Lesvi Molina, Ortega’s daughter. “We just hope he will meet with us to give us a clear answer: Does he think she should be deported, yes or no?”
Back in Winston-Salem, after the naturalization ceremony, women outfitted in stars-and-stripes attire approached new Americans for handshakes and hugs, congratulating them on their updated status. One woman who spoke to Rewire on the condition of anonymity said she attended the ceremony because it made her “happy” to see immigrants coming “the right way.” The woman had not heard of Ortega or Garcia, but said there must be “something they did” that hinders their ability to obtain citizenship, pointing to the 47 people who had just been naturalized as proof that it was a “simple” process “some immigrants” refused to pursue.
Becoming a U.S. citizen is anything but simple.
As the American Immigration Council reported, the “line”—or pathway to citizenship—for the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants simply does not exist. Immigration to the United States on a temporary or permanent basis is limited to three routes: employment, family reunification, or humanitarian protection. Each of these routes is “highly regulated and subject to numerical limitations and eligibility requirements,” according to the American Immigration Council. Not only that, but most undocumented immigrants do not have necessary family or employment relationships and cannot access humanitarian protection, including refugee or asylum status.
There are other factors that prohibit undocumented people from attaining citizenship, including the visa backlog, as Rewire reported. To obtain citizenship, a person must first obtain a green card. Depending on what type of green card the person was eligible for, they must then wait an additional three or five years before applying for citizenship. Furthermore, there is a cap for the number of people admitted to the United States each year on family visas, which is when a U.S. citizen sponsors a family member who is an immigrant.
This has created a first-come, first-served immigration system, and people from Mexico experience some of the longest wait times for visas. USCIS, the services-arm of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) federal immigration agencies, is just now processing some family visa applications from Mexico that were submitted in April 1996. There are prohibitive costs associated with obtaining an attorney to help in the complicated process of filing all of the necessary paperwork—and then there’s the cost of naturalization itself: In 1990, the application fee for naturalization was $90. The cost is now $725, including an $85 biometric fee.
John Kelly, secretary of DHS, released a statement Tuesday to commemorate the naturalization ceremonies happening nationwide, though it was in opposition to what has been espoused by President Trump’s anti-immigrant administration, which includes former leaders of anti-immigrant hate groups.
“Ever since the declaration was signed, people have come to the United States in search of freedom and opportunity,” Kelly’s statement said. “We have welcomed countless immigrants to our shores—immigrants who have helped build our nation and shape our history. Immigrants who became important parts of our institutions.”
Trump has routinely used “immigrant” and “criminal” interchangeably, including when he announced his candidacy, calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers. Trump has signed executive orders that criminalize the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States who contribute $11.74 billion in state and local taxes each year. The Trump administration has offered no indication that it understands or will address the complex reasons for why people migrate. The administration has failed to propose any changes that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants or amend processes to make citizenship more accessible.
At Tuesday’s naturalization ceremony, Laporte told Rewire that Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric did not “color the experience of citizenship” for her.
“It’s not representative of what America is,” Laporte said. “I will always respect the president, but it’s not the America I know. I hope [Trump] realizes how it’s affecting the country.”