The path to citizenship Friday afternoon was partially snow covered, cold and slippery, but that didn’t stop the more than 80 legal immigrants who had been living as residents of Kansas.
A day after a storm dumped about a foot of snow across the area, determined immigrants from 35 countries braved the streets to become naturalized citizens of the United States of America.
Jaime Gaona, 41, walked out of his Kansas City, Kan., house about sunrise Friday to shovel a clear path for his truck to make it from driveway to street.
“He wanted to make sure that he would be able to get here today,” said his wife, Liliana Gaona.
Her husband, who installs building insulation, came on a work visa from Mexico 16 years ago. With their seven children, the couple has lived in Kansas for nine years. And until the ceremony, Jaime Gaona was the only member of the family who was not a U.S. citizen. His visa would expire in March and he would have had to renew it.
“But this is good news,” his wife said. “I’m really so proud of him. He said now he’s going to buy a giant American flag to put in front of our house.”
“America the Beautiful” poured from giant speakers tucked into the rafters of Polsky Theater at Johnson County Community College as soon-to-be citizens, their families and friends stood at attention.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James P. O’Hara, who presided over the first naturalization ceremony to be held at the school, welcomed those petitioning for citizenship, sharing that his own ancestors, “seeking a better life,” had come to this country from Ireland after a devastating famine.
JCCC president Terry Calaway reminded the gathering that many Americans had fought and died for democracy and freedom.
“Freedom is not an easy thing to have,” he said. “It comes with responsibility.”
Calaway urged them to use their new citizenship “to improve the level of discourse in this country. We will become a better country if we can exchange ideas with civility.”
The ceremony was held on the campus as part of the college’s yearlong spotlight on democracy, said Anita Tebbe, professor of legal studies and the chairwoman of the committee that coordinates naturalization ceremonies for the Johnson County Bar Association.
To receive U.S. citizenship, a petitioner for naturalization must be a lawful permanent resident for at least five years; possess a good moral character; pass a 10-question civics test to show a basic knowledge of U.S. government and history; be able to read, write and speak simple English; be at least 18 years old; have legal competence to take the citizenship oath; and express allegiance to the U.S. government.
A student from the Republic of Congo, a merchandiser from Peru, an electrician from Iran, an engineer from India, a nurse from Belarus and a U.S. Army serviceman from Brazil were among the new citizens who stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as members of the Sons of the American Revolution marched onstage and displayed the flag.
Tamara Asedi, a 23-year-old University of Kansas pharmacy student from Iraq, placed her right hand on her chest. So did her dad, Muhammad Asedi, a cabdriver, and her mother, Bushra Asedi, a teacher, who both became citizens with her.
“We left Iraq for political reasons,” the younger Asedi said.
The family came to Kansas City as refugees from Jordan five years ago.
After the ceremony, Tamara Asedi couldn’t stop smiling and waving one of the small flags given to each of the new citizens.
“I feel awesome,” she said. “I know this will open many doors for me later. I will be able to vote and to participate in campaigns and in the political process.”
These new Americans have gained their citizenship at a time when U.S. politicians are haggling hard over a proposal to overhaul the country’s immigration laws. Legislation likely to move this year would provide a pathway to citizenship for some of the estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants here, particularly those who came with their parents into the country as babies without documentation.
Of the estimated 13.1 million legal residents in the U.S., 8.5 million were eligible to naturalize, according to a 2011 report by the Department of Homeland Security Department.
In Kansas, roughly 2,500 petitioners a year pay the $680 naturalization fee and take the Oath of Citizens.
Wilson Waigwa, 84, said he has wanted to become an American ever since he was a boy growing up in Kenya. His son, Marsh Wilson, and Marsh’s sons, Jordan, 9, and Nicholas, 6, came to celebrate the moment with Waigwa, who had come to the U.S. in 2000 and worked for Wal-Mart but now is retired.
“I am very happy to be an American citizen,” Waigwa said. “This is a free country. It’s my country.”