BEATRICE - The United States welcomed 60 new citizens Sept. 16, during a swearing in ceremony that marked the end of a long journey for most, but also the start of a new life.
They came from across the globe, born in 38 different countries, speaking as many languages, with as many stories of their long, hard journey, and as many reasons why the day was so very special.
They sat in suits, dresses and a few in native garb, nervously looking around, fingers marking time and singing along during the playing of ‘This Land is Your Land.’ Their smiles warmed the green and white tent at Homestead National Monument, a fitting site for the ceremony.
“This means everything to me, I am so proud to be an American citizen,” said Mayin Bouth Rundiel Jong, a refugee from Sudan. Jong is the first person in his family to ever attend school, any school.
Like Jong, Friday meant everything to Custer County Chief pressman, circulation manager Alvin Fama.
“It means I will now have the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech. I will be able to express myself and my thoughts through the freedom to vote,” he said.
A table at the swearing in ceremony demonstrated that thought, as new citizens lined up to fill in the paperwork registering to vote.
Alvin’s journey to citizenship started in September 2003, when he met the love of his life, Rachel White, in a church choir in Manila. Rachel was in the Philippines as a missionary. One of Alvin’s co-workers had invited Alvin to attend his church.
Nearly a year later, Aug.1, 2004, they became engaged. In September, Rachel returned to the United States.
Rachel, Alvin is quick to say, is his first and last girlfriend. He was the shy one, he said. Rachel was the only girl he ever took home to meet his parents. His friend served as ‘the bridge’ organizing the initial dates. The two were nervous when Rachel returned to her homeland.
“I didn’t know when we would see each other again. It was a test for us,” he said. The separation allowed them to explore whether their relationship was true love or not.
And this is when their long road to life in the United States started, and Alvin’s long hard journey to become a U.S. citizen.
Their first step was to apply for a fiance visa, and the required background checks. They had to prove an ongoing relationship through photo albums, emails, and snailmail, said Alvin.
“They want to make sure you are not marrying just to become a citizen,” he explained.
This was approved during the first quarter of 2006. June 18, 2006, he traveled to Sargent, Nebraska, to become better acquainted with his fiance’s family.
According to regulations he and Rachel had three months to marry. They wed Aug. 6 2006.
By November his status was changed to conditional permanent resident. In February 2007 he became eligible for his first green card. That’s when he went to work at the Chief.
In February 2008 he applied for a conditional permanent green card (good for 10 years). That was received in February 2009.
As soon as Rachel and Alvin celebrated their three year anniversary he applied for citizenship. In April 2011, his application was approved.
On July 25 he took, and passed, his citizenship exam, which tests knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, U.S. history and the English language.
The hardest part of the procedure was not the testing process, but the financial obligation. Alvin and Rachel estimate that the entire process cost in the neighborhood of $5,000. Each application comes with a fee.
“This is such a wonderful day” said Homestead National Monument Superintendent Mark Engier. “The Homestead National Monument is fitting location for the ceremony. The site represents some of the best and some of the worst that can be tied to our nation. The parks are the people’s parks.”
Beatrice hosts two Citizenship ceremonies each year, one on Flag Day and one in conjunction to Constitution Day.
“The Homestead story is closely tied to the story of the immigrants. If a person has never seen one of these ceremonies it should be on their bucket list. It is too easy to take citizenship fro granted ... Today some 60 immigrants become citizens of our country. These people are coming here because they want to be part of the United States. Today they become part of its legacy. It’s a pretty neat thing.”
Engier’s words were echoed by U.S. Judge Magistrate Cheryl Zwart who was in charge of the proceedings and who administered the oath.
“You are special,” she said, holding back tears of her own, “You have chosen us, and we have chosen you. You have worked hard and am proud of you... We are the people of the United States.”
Reciting excerpts from the Constitution she called attention to the value of the words.
“We are here to form a more perfect union. This does not mean we are a perfect union ... this union was created by diversity and it is challenged by adversity. Our settlers had to be willing to cope with adversity.”
She challenged the soon to be citizens, and reminded then that it takes hard work to achieve the American dream, and that means becoming active in the democratic process, to do their research and vote for true leaders.
“You hire and you fire. Do not turn a blind eye to injustice. You are now members of the largest board of directors in the world.”
Following the ceremony, Rachel Fama, Alvin’s wife, expressed her delight with the day.
“I’m so proud of Alvin, and of how he was so careful to follow every directive, every detail, in becoming a citizen.
“He was so afraid we were never going to see each other again. He was always so conscientious of what he needed to do next.
Rachel’s pride resonated with the Chief staff on Monday.
“We are so proud of Alvin,” said Chief Publisher Deb McCaslin. “For the Fama’s it’s been a long hard road.”