July 4, 2000 -- Peruvian immigrant George Bavanco has waited more than six years for this particular Fourth of July.
“I called Immigration almost every single day for too many years,” Bavanco says.
Today, those calls have been answered.
Bavanco was among 41 immigrants from 40 countries who took the oath of allegiance today on the grounds of the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va., swearing to “support and defend the constitution and laws of the United States of America” and becoming a U.S. citizen.
So was biologist Lucy Songgilbart, who immigrated from China.“This is a wonderful day and I love this country,” she said, laughing. “I am very happy to be here.”
A Long Process
For most, the ceremony is the last step in a lengthy naturalization process. New immigrants must prove their knowledge of American government and of spoken English, and many have to wait for months or even years for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to process their paperwork.
“This is very special. All my other encounters have been in dingy offices with gruff immigration officers,” said Zohra Siddiqui, 58, who took the oath on the steps of Thomas Jefferson’s stately house at Monticello, Va.
Siddiqui, a former boys’ school principal, said she came to the United States from Pakistan eight years ago to be closer to her son and daughter. She was among 84 people from 27 countries who were sworn in as citizens at Monticello today.
The annual ceremony marks not only the signing of the Declaration of Independence, written by Jefferson, but also his death on July 4, 1826.
Many of the new citizens said they came here to findprofessional opportunities that they couldn’t find elsewhere.Others, like Kannan Selvaratnam, 30, were looking for peace.
“Today is extraordinary,” said Selvaratnam, who fled Sri Lankain 1983 when ethnic fighting destroyed his village. Selvaratnam,who works at a New York advertising agency, said his familyscattered to different countries for safety.
“It’s difficult being exiled from a place where you have so many emotional ties, he said, a small American flag poking from his coat pocket. “But this means we really can triumph one day.”
In Detroit, nearly 900 people crowded into the Riverview Ball Room to take the oath. They came from 80 countries—as different as England, Zimbabwe, and Trinidad and Tobago. The largest groups came from India, China, and Iraq.
In Seattle, 540 immigrants were sworn in—the youngest just five years old.
And 20 immigrants even took the oath this morning in the studio of ABC’s Good Morning America, in a ceremony led by INS Deputy District Director Maryanne Gantner.
In an emotional — and very public — demonstration that they have accepted their adopted country’s ways, the immigrants promised on national television to “absolutely and entirely renounce and adjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince ...potentate, state or sovereignty.”
A Plea for Open Doors
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who spoke at the Monticello ceremony, underscored the immigrants’ bravery—and the new opportunities open to them.
She recalled her own arrival in the United States from Czechoslovakia at age 11, and told the crowd of 1500, “It never occurred to me that I would be secretary of state and have Thomas Jefferson’s job.”
Meanwhile, President Clinton, who spent his day in New York watching Operation Sail with his family, announced some minor initiatives he said would make becoming a citizen easier. He released $25.5 million for English language instruction and said he would streamline immigration procedures.
Above all, however, Clinton called for tolerance.
“We must resolve never to close the golden door behind us, and always not only to welcome people to our borders, but to welcome people into our hearts,” he said.
ABCNEWS’ Terry Moran, ABCNEWS Radio’s Barbara Britt, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.