As a long line of people filed past them down an aisle in the Paramount Theatre, the six members of the Ner family smiled and posed for photographs while holding small American flags. As Romeo Ner snapped away, his adolescent kids—two boys in bright dress shirts and two girls in dresses with floral prints—smiled and waved their flags.
The Ner family emigrated from Manila in 2003 to give the children a better education, Romeo Ner said, and over the past eight years had gone through the long process of becoming a citizen: tourist visa, green card, naturalization application, and finally, a citizenship test. Moments earlier, they had stood with 1,200 other people, and with one hand raised, each had each recited the Pledge of Allegiance and Oath of Allegiance, which must be stated by all immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens. At that moment, they all became citizens of the United States.
“It’s an important milestone for immigrants,” said Romeo Ner, who lives in San Ramon. “We are finally, officially citizens.”
Every three weeks at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, hosts a naturalization ceremony for new citizens. Wednesday’s ceremony was for citizens who had their case heard at the USCIS San Francisco office, which naturalizes about 25,000 people a year, and other offices around Northern California. The Paramount Theatre is the only location in Northern California that holds the naturalization ceremony.
“A lot of people probably felt like it was their lucky day,” said Sharon Rummery, a spokesperson for USCIS. “But the ones who are really lucky are the American people because we folded more people into our family.”
A line running both ways down Broadway Avenue formed in front of the Paramount Theatre hours before the doors opened for the 10 a.m. ceremony. Vendors hawked cases to protect certificates and passports, and there were tables set up inside and in front of the theater where people could register to vote. After entering the theater, the new citizens were assigned a seat downstairs and given a program as well as pocket versions of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, while friends and family were led upstairs to the balcony.
The new citizens originally hailed from 109 countries, and ranged in age from young children to senior citizens. Families sat together holding hands and some new citizens wiped away tears during the ceremony.
The ceremony started with a film that showed scenes from the American landscape, like the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore. The new citizens were asked to stand when their country of origin was announced, and everyone, after all of the nations were called out, raised their right hand to recite the pledge and the oath. “You are now citizens of the United States of America,” a USCIS officer announced from the stage and was promptly drowned out by applause.
After the ceremony, representatives from USCIS walked around the theater distributing Naturalization Certificates, which proves that the people naturalized today are now U.S. citizens. “One hundred and nine countries walked through the door, and one walked out,” Rummery said.
In the theater lobby afterward, Siriluck Mawhinney posed for photos as her husband, Alex Mawhinney, knelt on the floor taking pictures. Siriluck Mawhinney is from Thailand and has been waiting for nearly six years to be a citizen since marrying her husband, who was already a citizen.
“It really just reminds you how important citizenship is,” Alex Mawhinney said of the ceremony. “When it comes down to it, we’re a nation of immigrants, it’s what this country was founded on. It was kind of nice to be a part of that.”
For Siriluck, becoming a citizen means both the little things—like she and her husband can now wait in the same customs line when entering a country—and larger ones, as she can now apply for family members in Thailand to move to the U.S. and start on their path to citizenship. While Siriluck said the process moved relatively quickly for her, she knows it can be arduous; sitting next to her during the ceremony was a man from Jordan who had been waiting 15 years to become a citizen, she said.
For now, though, the Mawhinneys said they planned to celebrate by having breakfast somewhere in downtown Oakland before heading back to San Francisco where they live.
“He’s been helping me [become a citizen] for six years, until today,” Siriluck said, indicating her husband.
“And now you’re a citizen!” he replied, his face breaking into a big smile.