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'I want my voice to be heard'

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Falling in love. Having children. Wanting to vote.

Every one of the 59 people sworn in as new American citizens on Monday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland had their own reasons for wanting to become citizens.

But they were united as they swore an oath of allegiance, renouncing loyalty to any foreign ruler and promising to defend the laws and Constitution of America.

They came from Canada, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa — representing 22 countries in all.

“I didn’t expect so many people to be here from so many countries. It’s amazing,” Johnene Williams, originally from Jamaica, said during the jubilant celebration.

She met her future husband in her home country nine years ago, then moved to America six years ago to be with him.

“Thank you for inviting me to America and making me feel so welcome,” Williams said.

Gladys Cooper left Kenya to study abroad in America a decade ago.

“I came here as a student. And then I fell in love,” said Cooper, who now has a husband and son.

Having a child motivated her to go through the citizenship process and gain the right to vote. She said she wants to participate in improving the political system in her adopted country.

“People should vote — because that impacts everything,” Conner said.

David Giovanni Lopez was just a child when he and his parents immigrated to American from Mexico in 2002.

“It was pretty tough. I started school. I didn’t know any English whatsoever,” he recalled.

Giovanni Lopez and a few other kids spent hours and hours in a room with a teacher, working on their English.

“It was really hard. I felt out of place. But with a lot of effort and a lot of focus, three months later I was able to socialize, have a normal conversation with someone. That was the hardest part when I first came here,” he said.

Lopez said he is a contributing member of society and wanted to become a citizen so he could vote.

“I want my voice to be heard,” he said.

Getting through the naturalization process to become a citizen can be grueling, and is off limits to some.

In most cases, people must be at least 18 years old, have lived in America as lawful permanent residents for at least five years, be of good moral character, have knowledge of the nation’s history and government and be able to speak, read, write and understand English.

More than 757,000 people were naturalized and became citizens in the 2018 fiscal year. The top countries of origin, in order, were Mexico, India, the Philippines, Cuba and China, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Over the past decade, 7.4 million people became citizens through that route, USCIS said.

USCIS Portland Field Office Director Richard Miller told the new citizens America is not a nation of one culture, ethnicity or ideology, but a country joined by principles of opportunity, equality and liberty.

He reminded them citizenship comes with rights, but also responsibilities.

“So I ask that you use your freedoms and your talents to contribute to the good of this nation and the world as a whole,” Miller said. “Remember that in America, no dream is impossible. Like million of immigrants ahead of you, you have the opportunity to enrich this country with your contributions. You can help write the next great chapter in our American story. I’m proud to welcome you as citizens of this country today.”

For Erica Ramirez, her journey to become a citizen began 30 years ago when she fled a brutal civil war that raged in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996. She became a political refugee in America.

Now a mother with children in the United States, Ramirez is looking forward to voting here and being able to go back and visit relatives still in Guatemala.

“My life is good in the United States. I am very happy. I feel very secure here. I love this country,” Ramirez said.

For more information about the naturalization process, visit www.uscis.gov.

Locally, a free citizenship class taught in English and Spanish meets from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays at the Phoenix Public Library, 510 West First Street, Phoenix. Classes, which are sponsored by Unite Oregon of the Rogue Valley, will resume on Oct. 2.

For information on the class, contact instructor Elizabeth Silver at silverelizabeth@msn.com.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Director of Equity Sharifa Johka, left, hugs newly sworn in American citizen Gladys Cooper, who moved to the United States from Kenya a decade ago. photo by Denise Baratta
Johnene Williams, originally from Jamaica, and her infant son pause during a celebration for new citizens at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland on Monday. Photo by Denise Baratta
Newly sworn in citizens from 22 countries wave American flags during a ceremony Monday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photo by Denise Baratta