Thousands in Valley become citizens, embrace new rights

By John Faherty — Sept. 18, 2008 — The Arizona Republic

More than 3,000 immigrants filled the Dodge Theatre in Phoenix on Wednesday and became U.S. citizens [including Olga Nimcheski from Russia, below. Other Russians not mentioned in this article are Larissa Hill and daughter Luci from Omsk. Larissa teaches English at Glendale Community College.]

They pledged allegiance to their new country. They sang a song and waved American flags.

Then, they registered to vote in time for the election in November.

"I get to exercise my right to vote," said Morris Sohn, 28, an immigrant from the West African country of Liberia. "It's the most important right of a citizen."

There are moments when the oath of allegiance sounds almost old-fashioned.

The men and women raised their right hands to "entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty."

Although the language is old, Wednesday's ceremonies represented a new effort in the past year by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to relieve a serious backlog in naturalization applications.

The 3,090 people who became Americans on Citizenship Day brought the total number of new citizens in Arizona to more than 15,000 in the past 12 months. In the previous year, 10,500 people became citizens.

Nationally, 1.4 million people applied for citizenship in the year up to Sept. 30, 2007, according to the USCIS.

That was nearly double the year before.

Across the country, and in Arizona in particular, there had been a backlog in naturalization applications because of a surge of people trying to gain citizenship in the past year.

That surge happened for a variety of reasons, according to Marie Sebrechts of the USCIS.

Included among them are:
  • A desire by people to become citizens in time to vote in November.
  • People rushing to apply before a significant hike in application fees.
  • A controversy over illegal immigration, which motivated people eligible for citizenship to act.
The new Americans arrived at the ceremony as citizens of nations as diverse as Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.

They came from Croatia and Iceland and Mexico.

Many of them cried during the ceremony. Afterward, nearly all of them were beaming.

"This is a good day. This is a good country," said Florencio Gonzalez, 34, and formerly a Mexican citizen. "I am very happy to be a part of it."

One of the first things Gonzalez will do as a new citizen is vote in November's election.

After the ceremony, he and all the new citizens were led directly to a long row of tables set up by the Maricopa County Elections Department, where people could register to vote in less than five minutes.

"We've been working with the federal government for several years," County Recorder Helen Purcell said. "It is a very good way to do it. They are assured of being able to vote. This is what citizenship is all about."

Gonzalez is already looking forward to it.

"I never did (vote) in my old country," Gonzalez said. "But I will here."

So many people became citizens on Wednesday that two ceremonies were needed. In the morning, 1,545 took their oath. In the afternoon, another 1,545 did the same.

Before the ceremonies, they were reminded to remove their hats and their sunglasses and to turn off their cellphones.

After the pledge, they were shown a video recording of President Bush in which he spoke to them as his fellow Americans.

After the president spoke, a recording of country-music singer Lee Greenwood's anthemic God Bless the U.S.A. played.

The new citizens, who came from 128 countries, stood as one and waved their flags and sang along to the words that scrolled along the bottom of the screen.

Olga Nimcheski came to America from Russia seven years ago. In that time, she has had two children. Both of her sons are U.S. citizens. Now she is, as well.

"Now, I have done it," Nimcheski said as she registered to vote. "I have a lot of rights now. And I can tell my boys that I am an American."

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