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What It's Like to Become an American Citizen on the Fourth of July

"I guess the best day in my life was when I got married, but really the best day of my life was that day."

by Serena Solomon
Jul 4 2016, 4:20pm

Estevao Moreira, an immigrant from Cape Verde, Africa, shakes hands with Judge Katherine Robertson at the naturalization ceremony held by the Center for New Americans. Photo by Robert Tobey

Rafael Palacio, from Venezuela, considers himself a lucky man. In 1997, he entered the green card lottery, a US government program to diversify immigration—and won. The program allowed him to move to the United States and later apply for citizenship.

Then in 2004, when he became a citizen, he got to commemorate the occasion and swear his allegiance to the United States in the most American way possible—at Disneyland, on the Fourth of July.

"I know it sounds cliché, but it was a dream come true," Palacio, 49, told me. "I can tell you from the bottom of my heart it was very meaningful because of the day [July 4]."

In his first few moments as an American citizen, Palacio registered to vote. He then went on to enjoy the glory of Disney World with the free tickets given out to the new Americans.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, thousands of immigrants will pledge their allegiance to the United States and become citizens. Among other things, they will promise to bear arms on behalf of their new country, if required, and they will renounce all allegiances to "any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty."

Many will make these pledges in tears, reflecting on all they've gone through to be here. Others will say it as a formality, a way to obtain a coveted US passport and solidify their residency here for a lifetime.

While naturalization ceremonies are an almost daily occurrence across the US, big cities, small towns and apparently theme parks often host events on or around July 4, showering new citizens in American fanfare.

"Many of the people are crying or hugging each other. People come in red, white, and blue. They come dressed in their finest," said Laurie Millman, the executive director of the Center for New Americans, a nonprofit located in Northampton, Massachusetts.

I guess the best day in my life was when I got married, but really the best day of my life was that day. — Sabrie Elseedah

Her organization, which offers English classes and helps immigrants navigate the citizenship process, hosts a naturalization ceremony each Independence Day. This year, 52 people are due to pledge their allegiance to the US, representing 26 countries.

"This is rural Massachusetts," Millman said. "That number is incredible."

Estevao Moreira holds up his citizen certificate. Photo by Robert Tobey

Securing a spot at a July 4 ceremony comes down to luck, according to Jim McKinney, a spokesman for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). These are often more elaborate than everyday naturalization ceremonies: At the Center for New Americans' ceremony, there's a judge and a clerk, plus keynote speakers. On the day, the clerk calls everyone to order and then a color guard enters with the American flag followed by the judge.

Other Fourth of July ceremonies will be held at places like Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello plantation in Virginia.

The citizenship of these new Americans is approved months in advance, making the ceremony and the oath of allegiance little more than a formality. But Sabrie Elseedah was nervous anyway at his naturalization ceremony, which was part of Independence Day celebrations at the Denver City Council chambers on July 2, 2015.

Elseedah, who came to the United States after claiming political asylum from his native Sudan, arrived an hour early to his naturalization ceremony, freshly shaved and wearing a suit. When he signed in, a USCIS staff member told him they had been looking for him and then escorted him to a back room. Elseedah's stomach sank.

"I was shaking and thinking 'What if they changed their minds [about giving me citizenship]?" he told me. Instead, a reporter and cameraman from a local TV station wanted to hear his story.

"I guess the best day in my life was when I got married, but really the best day of my life was that day," said Elseedah, adding that July 2 is also his birthday.

For other citizens, the Fourth of July ceremony seems a little ridiculous. Norma Granados, a Colombian immigrant who has lived in the United States for over a decade, told me she still feels "more Colombian than I do American." At her naturalization ceremony on July 4, 2015, she said she cringed a little when the new citizens were asked to wave tiny American flags and sing a patriotic song.

"It was a little funny," Granados told me. But she recognized that for the others at the ceremony who were crying, it was a big moment.

By the time someone becomes an American citizen, they've already spent years preparing. Residents with a green card, or permanent residency status, must wait three to five years before applying for citizenship. Once they apply they are fingerprinted, background checked, and interviewed by USCIS. They also have to pass an English language test (which requires them to read, speak, or write words like "George Washington" and "dollar bill") and a civics test (which requires them to correctly answer questions like, "How many US senators are there?" and "What did Susan B. Anthony do?").

Preparing for these tests can take months, according to Millman. Her organization also spends time reviewing the oath and its meaning with new citizens, before they have to say it out loud at the ceremony.

"This isn't a toe-in-the-water kind of activity," she told me. "You are now 100 percent embracing this country."

An Independence Day naturalization ceremony in Baltimore. Photo courtesy of USCIS

For Amit Kulkarni, becoming a citizen felt like a mere formality. He had come to the United States from India for graduate school, then stayed when he got a job with Microsoft, which sponsored his green card. Making the step to citizenship meant a US passport and the ability to sponsor his parents for a green card, so he applied.

When he arrived arrived at his naturalization ceremony on July 4, 2015, the presences of elected officials, a judge, and a lot of red, white, and blue got the better of Kulkarni.

"It did feel a bit more emotional than I thought it would," he told me. "I felt a sense of belonging and responsibility all at the same time."

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