In New York City on Friday, in a time of anti-immigrant rhetoric and laws that have come to define Donald Trump’s young presidency, 196 people from 56 countries became US citizens.
Below the glass dome of the New York Public Library, people from countries including Bangladesh, Kosovo and Taiwan renounced their birth countries in favor of the US.
It was an emotionally charged ceremony that occurred in the week Trump’s attempt to ban travellers from six Muslim-majority countries went into partial effect. One person at the ceremony was from a targeted country, Yemen. Another was from Iraq, which was included in the first version of the president’s travel ban.
Valery Mendez, a 22-year-old from the Dominican Republic, said becoming a US citizen took on new importance with Trump as president. She had lived in the US for six years legally but wanted the most security possible.
“I have the right to be here,” Mendez said. “It’s not that I didn’t before, but I can be more confident now.”
There are signs that more people are applying for naturalization because of the president.
According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), since 1 October 2016 there has been a 21% increase in naturalization applications submitted compared with the same period a year before. Immigration attorneys have observed a rise in applications in response to the presidential campaign and election.
The president, whose eponymous New York tower is 15 blocks north of the library’s Fifth Avenue address, was absent from the ceremony. His predecessor, Barack Obama, featured in a welcome video at naturalization ceremonies during his time in office. Friday’s ceremony featured a brief video in which homeland security secretary John Kelly appeared.
And any references to Trump from speakers were veiled in generalizations about anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Allan Wernick, a former president of the New York chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, delivered a speech about current attitudes towards immigration. While New York City is welcoming to immigrants, he said, “not all of America is so friendly”.
And yet, he said, this has been true at many points in US history. In the 19th century, Irish immigrants were severely discriminated against; in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act denied that population citizenship. Now, Wernick said, “our Muslim neighbors are feeling the greatest pain”, but that too will pass.
Because immigrants have always been a part of the fabric of the US, Wernick said, they have shown time and again that they can prevail over laws and language designed to stop them.
“I’m very optimistic that immigrants will be welcome to the US and that some of the anti-immigrant voices we are hearing will soon be silenced,” Wernick said.
His message fitted the celebratory atmosphere. The crowd included many people who had called the US home for decades, but had not made the final step to citizenship.
Felix Rojas said that even though he had lived in the US for more than 40 years as a legal resident, becoming a citizen felt different.
“I’m happy,” he said. “It’s a relief. It changes your life, you feel more like a part of this country.”
He moved to the US with his parents as a child but married a Mexican woman who he could not bring to the US. His relationship with her, and his six-year-old daughter, was limited to months-long visits to Mexico. As of Friday, he can sponsor their citizenship applications.
“When I bring my wife and daughter I want to educate my daughter to be something useful for this country – a doctor, a lawyer,” he said.
Rojas said he was not worried about Trump’s immigration policies, but as a citizen he wanted to challenge the president’s anti-Latino rhetoric.
“I’m going to prove that I’m going to do better in this country than he thinks,” Rojas said.
Candidates queued outside the library with family and friends. Inside, they exchanged hugs and kisses with loved ones for the last time as non-citizens before entering a line to get important documentation and take an assigned seat.
This process lasted for two tense hours, before USCIS staff took the stage to prepare the incoming citizens for the ceremony.
An undercurrent of national politics flashed when Tim Houghton, deputy director of USCIS’s New York field office, explained the rights the naturalization candidates would gain as citizens. Houghton explained that they would all soon be able to get a US passport, sponsor a family member’s citizenship application and vote, which was the only listed item to elicit applause.
Shortly after that, an announcer called out the 56 countries represented at the ceremony – from Albania to Yemen – indicating that the representatives of those countries should stand. The atmosphere reached a joyous crescendo when the Dominican Republic was announced – 60 people rose, inviting smiles from the citizens, staff and family and friends attending the ceremony.
The 196 new citizens in New York City were among 15,000 who would be naturalized nationwide, over the Fourth of July weekend.
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