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Oakland naturalization ceremony welcomes new Americans

on October 22, 2019

Over 1,100 people from 86 different countries took the oath to become United States citizens at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on Wednesday.  

In a warm and thunderous atmosphere, with friends and family whistling and singing, California Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), the keynote speaker, said, “I am so grateful to welcome all of you, my fellow Americans. I am one of you. Look at me, I made it. To those of you who say you can’t, I say you can.” 

“I was just 12 weeks old when my mother fled political persecution in the Philippines,” he continued. “Since 2012, I have been the assemblyman for Alameda County—the first Filipino to serve in this position. Welcome to America. This is a country of immigrants. I am one of many.”

The attendees were also greeted by President Donald Trump in a recorded message. “My dear fellow Americans, it is with great pride that I welcome you into the American family, no matter where you’re coming from,” he said.

A naturalization ceremony is the last of the several steps that one undergoes before becoming a US citizen. The United States Citizens and Immigration Services (USCIS) has set guidelines for people who come to the United States and wish to stay through a process known as “adjustment of status.” Adjustment of status can be through marriage, claiming asylum, having a family member petition for you, and several others options. For one to naturalize, it takes 5 to 6 years from the day one successfully files an application to having a status adjustment.

At the Paramount Theater, this year’s naturalization ceremony had no special performance, but due to the huge crowds, celebrants started arriving as early as noon for a ceremony that started at 2:00 pm. Blue, white and red were the dominant colors. As required, all naturalizing citizens were clad in formal outfits. Almost all of the new citizens and their families carried American flags. 

The ceremony itself started with people singing the national anthem. Then, representatives from USCIS led the citizens into taking the Oath of Allegiance: to the country, the flag and the Constitution. The ceremony was punctuated by short speeches from selected individuals from the Registrar of Voters Office, the Social Security Administration, the US passport office, and Bonta, the keynote speaker. During the ceremony, all 86 countries represented were mentioned and on each announcement, people from those countries stood up, shouted clapped and hugged in joyous chaos.

Irene Knolls, a Norwegian by birth, was among those who naturalized. Knolls has been living in the United States for 13 years. She got her green card seven years ago after getting married to her American husband, who has since passed away. A green card is the first legal document one obtains when they become permanent residents. They are valid for two to 10 years and are renewable. A person who has one is free to work in the United States, to enter the country without a visa and can access most of government programs, including serving in the US military. 

Celebrating her naturalization milestone Knolls said, “I am from Europe and I have always thought my green card is sufficient and felt it was okay for me to keep my native Norwegian Passport. However, with Trump’s unpredictable policies, it’s safer to take my US citizenship.”

Andrew Mugabe, from Zimbabwe, couldn’t hold back his tears as he looked at his naturalization certificate. “I can’t believe I am now American,” he said. “I’m a political asylee. The former government of Zimbabwe wiped out my entire family. Now I have the most prestigious citizenship on the planet.” 

“As an immigrant, I have never taken the opportunities here for granted. This country has so far given me the opportunity to go to school. I am a proud nurse. I can now celebrate with my two children,” he added. “Oh man, this is the best day of my life—thank you, America.”

Statistics from USCIS show that close to 800,000 immigrants naturalize every year. The number of foreign-born citizens reached a record five-year high in the fiscal year 2018, despite tougher Trump administration immigration policies.  For example, the USCIS now requires employers who intend to bring in foreign-born employees to follow higher standards of vetting. Foreign workers usually come to the country after obtaining an H1-B visa. But records from USCIS show that denial rates for these visa petitions increased from 6 percent in the fiscal year 2017 to 35 percent in the first quarter of 2019.

Of the over 1,100 new American citizens who took their oath in Oakland on Wednesday, people from India made up the largest percentage, China was second, and Mexico came in third. Rajiv Kamdah, originally from Pakistan, said, “Finally I don’t feel like a foreigner. I have waited 12 long years. My toil has come to fruition. I am going to medical school. Oakland is now my real home.” 

Many newly naturalized citizens couldn’t wait any longer to apply for their passports. A staffer from the US Passport Office who was on site told reporters that by the end of the ceremony, approximately 200 people had applied for their first US passports.

By end of the day, the voter registration booth outside of the theater was the busiest booth, and the Alameda County staffer in charge of registration told reporters that the most popular party people had registered for was the Democratic Party. He put the number at over 300. 

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

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