Hla Moe stood inside the Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College, clutched his certificate of citizenship and thought of his family in Myanmar.
The newly minted American citizen moved to the United States in 2002 and found work in Fort Lauderdale+, Fla., as a sushi chef. He continued that work when he later moved to Lawrence.
It’s been more than a decade since he has lived with his family: his wife and two young daughters.
“2006. 2013. 2014,” the 46-year-old said as he counted the years in which he was able to visit his family. “That’s it.”
Moe and more than 400 individuals from 71 countries became U.S. citizens Wednesday in a naturalization ceremony held at Johnson County Community College. But the ceremony was also a poignant moment of celebration after what both speakers and citizens acknowledged was a contentious election season in which immigration issues became a hot-button issue. People cheered for their loved ones as their names appeared on the screen.
Johnson County Community College president and guest speaker Joe Sopcich referenced his own Croatian surname and welcomed the room full of individuals whose “unusual last names” appeared behind him on a large screen. The participants and their families packed the school’s Yardley Hall, occupied a second auditorium and spilled into the hall.
They hailed from countries all over the world. On Wednesday, that diversity was celebrated.
“I failed to see any Smiths or Jones or Vanderbilts or Rockefellers or Trumps,” Sopcich said as the crowd laughed. “That’s not a political joke, but thank you for the applause.”
The ceremony was an opportunity for petitioners to take their final steps to become citizens: taking a citizenship oath and swearing allegiance to the U.S. government. Petitioners for citizenship must be lawful permanent residents for at least five years, possess a good moral character, pass a civics test, be able to read, write and speak English, and be at least 18 years old.
Many of the immigrants who took the oath of allegiance to the United States chose to become citizens to pledge allegiance to a country that already feels like home; to be able to bring over family members left behind in other countries; and partake in the country’s most proud tradition: voting.
“I wish I had done this earlier so I had the chance to vote in this election,” said 24-year-old Marion Gitau as she stood with her mother, Jane Chege; sister, Rachel; and 2-month-old son, Ezio, after the ceremony.
Gitau came to the United States at age 9 to join her mother, who had moved to this country in 1999. Last year, Gitau graduated from Johnson County Community College, where she studied interior design.
She said she was excited to participate in what James P. O’Hara, the chief magistrate for the U.S. District Court who had presided over the ceremony, had called the “nitty-gritty” of citizenship: paying attention to local elections and participating in civic requirements, such as jury duty.
“America is this really nice place with lots of opportunity,” Gitau said. “There’s a lot of excitement. You get so much more opportunity as a citizen, especially for voting.”
After the ceremony, Roberto Rio, 39, posed for a picture with his daughter, Alicia, as his ex-wife, Darleen, looked on.
Rio came to the United States in 1998 from Mexico and is now looking forward to bringing family members in Mexico to be with him and his two children in the United States.
“It was very emotional in there,” Rio said. “I am very excited.”
Moe wasn’t sure how soon he could start the process to bring his family to be with him in the United States, but he said he planned to catch up with them through the internet.
“I want a better education for my kids,” Moe said. “A better life.”