After years of waiting and yearning, more than 1,300 immigrants from 95 countries became United States citizens at a ceremony held at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland last Tuesday morning.
“Are you naturalizing today?” an usher in a bejeweled American flag baseball cap asked guests as they arrived. “Straight ahead! The ceremony is in here.” A man rushed into the theatre holding a bouquet of flowers wrapped in American-flag tissue paper. Inside, people who were about to be naturalized presented their Green Cards and appointment notices before being ushered through to the main floor. Spanish, Tagalog, Punjabi, Mandarin and dozens of other languages filled the crowded lobby as families and friends chatted on their way up to the balcony.
“I have lived here for 27 years. All the time I have focused on this day,” said Jorge Ibarra, originally from Mexico. “I moved here because I had to look for a better future.”
“I am feeling good, just so happy,” said Deepa Saravanan, originally from Chennai, India. Kyle Swekli, from Canada, looked apprehensive. He was waiting for his mother. “The most stressful thing about today has been getting here,” he said. “My mom is looking for parking. I knew we should have taken BART.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USICS) holds a naturalization ceremony in Oakland every two weeks. The agency naturalized 752,800 new Americans in the 2016 fiscal year and nearly 7.5 million over the last decade. About 150,000 immigrants are naturalized annually in California, about one-fifth of all newly naturalized citizens, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“It never gets old,” said USCIS press officer Sharon Rummery, who said she has seen more ceremonies than she can count. “We wear the red, white, and blue. To us, it is a big honor to be a little part of their big day.”
Inside the jam-packed Art Deco auditorium, Randy Ricks, a Richmond-based senior officer for USCIS, began the ceremony by delivering remarks in Hindi, Spanish and Cantonese, reflecting the diversity of his audience. “This is not like a courtroom,” he explained. “Please feel free to cheer and yell.”
As John Cramer, district director of USICS’s San Francisco office, read off the citizenship-seekers’ countries of origin, they stood to cheers and shrieks from the mezzanine. Applause and shouts of excitement filled the room, while miniature American flags waved wildly. The reaction from the crowd provided clues as to the size of the various nationalities represented. If Mexico and India appeared to be the most populous, then Brazil and Philippines were the most vociferously supported.
Cramer then led the recitation of the Oath of Allegiance before welcoming 1,347 of the “newest U.S. citizens.”
Judge Jon Tigar, who was appointed to the United States District Court of Northern California by then-President Barack Obama in 2012, delivered an emotional keynote speech. “You are welcome here,” he began. “Your ideas are welcome here. Your food, your language, your culture, your customs, your traditions—and your religion are welcome here.”
“Immigrants revitalize and renew America,” continued Tigar, an immigrant from the United Kingdom. “You enrich our country. You strengthen our economy. We need you and you make us stronger.” Tigar concluded his address to loud applause. “Welcome to this country, welcome to this democracy, welcome to the American family.”
The ceremony was also the first time a new welcome video by President Donald Trump was played in Oakland. It was met immediately with loud boos and hisses. As Trump stated, “My fellow Americans,” a man in the crowd yelled, “Turn it off!” More booing ensued.
Following the ceremony, many new citizens said that the election of President Trump prompted them to change their immigration status. Volker Rudninski, who moved to California from Germany 15 years ago, said his reason for becoming a U.S. citizen was simple: “Because Trump got elected.”
“In the past, I thought voting didn’t make a difference,” said Aymen Louati of Tunisia, who was waiting in line to register to vote. “But after Trump, I changed my mind.” Also in line was Kamala Rajnala, originally from India. “I really didn’t see any need to become a citizen until this election,” she said with a wink.
Saravanan said the administration’s stance on immigration was part of her decision to naturalize. “I thought it would be safer to become a citizen,” she said. “My kids like this place and want to stay.”
“I want to make sure I practice my rights,” said Hidat Tiwe, who moved to the United States from Ethiopia six years ago to study tourism and hospitality and works as the banquet manager at a hotel. “I want to make sure my voice is heard,” Tiwe said.
For many permanent residents, obtaining the legal protections guaranteed to citizens has become a more urgent priority. Trump’s policies and executive orders, such as the travel ban signed in January 2017, which briefly blocked the reentry of permanent residents into the U.S., have shaken some Green Card holders’ faith in their immigration status.
Since the 2016 election, immigrants across the country have rushed to become U.S. citizens. At the end of the first quarter of fiscal year 2017, which ended in December 2016, USCIS reported a 28 percent increase in citizenship applications compared with the previous quarter. To qualify for citizenship, immigrants are required to complete a 21-page application, pass a civics exam in English, and pay around $700 in fees. They also need to have held a Green Card for at least five years.
Even those who didn’t mention President Trump by name cited the current political climate as a reason for becoming citizens. “I want to speak freely without punitive measures,” said Jennifer Smith, who was born in the United Kingdom. “I want to be able to exercise my First Amendment right.”
Sergey Maslennikov considered the audience’s reaction to the Trump video disruptive and felt that it took away from the grandeur of the day. “I really didn’t like the booing,” he said. “But I do understand why it happened.” An immigrant from Russia, Maslennikov described the ceremony as a “milestone” that left him feeling “inspired.” He posed for a photo in front of the American flag. “I am even excited for jury duty!” he said.
Some new citizens said that having a U.S. passport would make travel easier. Balwinder Kaur, 65, teared up when she heard herself being referred to as an American citizen. “It feels really good—really, really good,” said Kaur in Punjabi, her native language. Kaur’s daughter, Sandeep Bhuller, had sponsored her for citizenship. “My mother hasn’t been able to go back home to her family for longer than six months in the past 10 years. So this is a big deal,” Bhuller said. “She can go home properly now and we are applying for her passport right now!”
Erika Portillo, a lawyer from Mexico, said that she was pleased to be able to leave the country without restrictions. “I feel great that I can decide to live in some places for more than six months and come back to the United States,” she said. If lawful permanent residents stay outside of the U.S. for more than six months, they may not able to satisfy the naturalization requirements and may lose their status as permanent residents.
Ramanathan Viswanathan, 37, moved to the United States from India with a student F-1 visa when he started his undergraduate education in Virginia. Fifteen years, a H-1B visa and a Green Card later, Viswanathan considered himself to be one of the lucky ones. “I am sure you have heard about the huge backlog of immigration cases. I know of people who have been waiting for 15 years or more for a simple Green Card,” he said. (There are nearly 618,000 cases backlogged in the country’s immigration courts, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. However, many of those cases are related to immigration enforcement, not permanent residents seeking citizenship.)
Astrid Chim, a 29-year old from Guatemala, came to the ceremony holding flowers to celebrate her mother’s naturalization. She is also in the process of getting citizenship. “My mom is a business owner in San Bruno. She contributed to the economy, and we care about this country,” she said.
Victor Rodriguez, a 36-year-old photographer from Guatemala, said he hopes to bring more of his family to the United States. “In Guatemala, safety is not good; it’s a big problem over there,” he said. “I want to bring my parents and sister to here.”
Some new citizens said that they had felt like Americans in their hearts even before the ceremony. Josh Zhang, 25, came to the United States from China in 2000. “I felt like I’m American before coming here already,” he said. John Mariano, a 61-year-old from the Philippines, came to the United States when he was 8. “I went to schools in San Francisco and joined the U.S. Navy,” he said. “I’m American. I’ve been here for my whole life.”