MISSOULA — Nearly 30 people from 20 countries raised their right hand on Thursday and swore allegiance to the United States before waving the Stars and Stripes to celebrate their achievement as the nation’s newest citizens.
In a ceremony that marked many firsts, and with a diverse crowd looking on, the 28 new Americans took their “obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion,” then smiled and wiped away tears of joy.
“I feel so excited and happy to be a new citizen in this lovely country,” said Anna Maria Pena, who joined her husband and two children after the ceremony. “I love this country. My husband is military and my kids were born here. Now it’s our country.”
Pena, who hails from Venezuela, has lived in Montana for five years and spent the past 12 months working toward citizenship. For others, like Candace Bilak of St. Lucia, the process took longer, though the reward was equally sweet.
Kam Tankam of Cameroon struggled to find the words.
“I’m super excited right now – I’m full of emotions right now,” he said. “We’re going to go get lunch.”
Immigration, both legal and otherwise, remains a source of national debate, one that escalated this week when a top immigration official in the Trump administration suggested that “huddled masses,” as written on the Statue of Liberty, referred to “people coming from Europe.”
Presiding over her first naturalization ceremony, U.S. District Court Judge Kathleen DeSoto urged the new crop of citizens to look beyond the nation’s divisions and focus on what makes it whole.
“The times we live in now are fairly tumultuous, and I think there’s a danger in focusing on the things that people think divide us and not focusing on the things that unify us,” DeSoto said. “I look at all of you and it’s amazing the countries that you came from, the different genders, religions and ethnicities you represent. That’s part of what makes America great.”
Thursday’s ceremony saw six Canadians sworn in as citizens, and three from Belarus. The Netherlands saw two, as did the Philippines and Thailand. Bulgaria, Brazil, Burma, Cameroon, Chile, Guatemala, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, St. Lucia, South Korea, Sweden and the UK each saw one.
Speaking from the bench, DeSoto praised the cohort’s diversity and urged the new citizens to exercise their right to vote while retaining the traits that make them unique. She is the first female magistrate judge ever to preside over federal court in Missoula County.
“We’re not great because we’re one,” DeSoto said. “You don’t just lose your identity when you become a citizen. You enhance America by your own individualities and differences, and I thank you for bringing that to us.”
According to federal statistics, U.S. Customs and Immigration Services completed 850,000 applications for naturalization last year, and roughly 756,000 were approved. The last time approvals were higher was in 2013 under the Obama administration.
In a letter read during the ceremony, Sen. Jon Tester admitted “the road to get here was long and hard.” He urged the new citizens to “chart your course, choose your own path and proudly call yourself an American.”
Scout Troop 1919, comprised entirely of young women, looked on and took the words to heart.
“Folks from different backgrounds, races and religions make up the incredible fabric of this nation,” Tester said. “For America’s economy to remain the envy of the world, we must continue to allow hardworking men and women from around the world to take their shot at the American dream.”
A letter submitted by Sen. Steve Daines offered a similar sentiment and quoted from the poem enshrined on the Statue of Liberty.
“The strength of the United States has always come from its willingness to open its arms to people from all corners of the world,” Daines said. “We are and continue to be a beacon of hope and freedom. The Statue of Liberty … said it perfectly, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath freely.’ “
-Martin Kidston reporting for the Missoula Current