People from 40 countries entered an auditorium-turned-federal court Wednesday afternoon in Jefferson City, but they all left as citizens of one nation.
A total of 101 people at the Miller Performing Arts Center reached a turning point in their lives as they swore an oath of allegiance to the United States and officially became American citizens.
The citizenship process took seven months for Adrian Tseng, 28, of Columbia, a Burmese-born photographer.
"It's such an honor to be part of this," Tseng said of his minutes-old status as an American.
The process took several years for Karema Howard, a Jamaican resident of Jefferson City, and being an American means "everything" to her.
At least one new citizen was wearing a U.S. military uniform.
The most represented country of origin at Wednesday's ceremony was Mexico, with 13 people who became U.S. citizens. Eight came from the Philippines, and six from the United Kingdom.
Four people came from India, Burma, Congo, China and Russia each. Switzerland, Thailand, Romania, Afghanistan, Jamaica, Ukraine, Brazil, Vietnam, Liberia, Morocco, Canada, Ghana, Cambodia, Jordan, Moldova and Kenya all had more than one person become a U.S. citizen Wednesday.
South Africa, Ecuador, South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador, Turkey, Somalia, Singapore, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Libya, Benin, Nigeria, Spain, Egypt, Finland, Nicaragua, Malawi, Cuba and Guatemala also were represented.
"I prefer to call it a naturalization celebration" as opposed to a ceremony, presiding U.S. District Judge M. Douglas Harpool told the crowd of applicants and their loved ones. Harpool serves in the U.S. District Court for Western Missouri — the Jefferson City federal courthouse, which was too small for Wednesday's group of citizenship applicants.
The need for the Miller Center's space granted students from Jefferson City Public Schools an opportunity to participate in the celebration.
Melanie Fraga teaches English Speakers of Other Languages at Jefferson City High School. Fraga teaches 33 students who have primarily spoken another language at home — usually Spanish, but also Swahili, Ibo, French, Chinese or Vietnamese, among others — how to read, write, speak and listen in English so they eventually can test out of ESOL as required.
Part of her teaching involves a classroom unit on becoming a citizen, and it seemed natural for her students to interview citizenship applicants and new citizens Wednesday — particularly because in the past she's been shocked by how little students knew about the process of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, when it affects so many of their lives through their own national legal status or that of family and friends.
Fraga said Tuesday that her students would use an interview template to ask questions, and the responses they would write up in paragraph form will be published in the JCHS newspaper, "Red & Black."
"The experience they had gave them a realization or hope of their own future. To see the ceremony in action helps them feel like contributing members of society," she said of what it meant for her students four years ago to do the same project, the previous time the federal court involved JCPS in a naturalization ceremony.
"It empowers my kids," she said of how her students become informational ambassadors for others in the community about the process to become a U.S. citizen with the knowledge they gain.
"We get to see why we want to become a citizen," said Debeto Clarke, a JCHS senior and student of Fraga's.
"If you are not a citizen, you know what's going to happen," JCHS sophomore and fellow ESOL classmate Cielo Zaragoza said of what watching the ceremony means and how she can inform other members of the community about the naturalization process.
"I'm proud of each of you," Harpool told the crowd of 101 new U.S. citizens after they swore their Oath of Allegiance to the nation. "Today, I told you earlier, is an important day for you because you get to come join us and get the opportunity to enter this country as citizens. It's good for our country because we get your talents, and did I mention taxes?" he added, getting some laughs.
He cited the United States' foundation of immigrants and all they've contributed to the nation's history and said Wednesday was an occasion for Americans who've had citizenship from birth to reflect on "how special those privileges are and how often we take advantage of them and take them for granted.
"To see the excitement in some of your faces and to know how hard you worked to get your citizenship, unlike some of us, it should remind us of how privileged we are," he said.
"In this country, there's a raging debate over immigration," he said, though he's "not a participant in that because I'm a judge and I interpret the law the way it's written. But today, we don't have to worry about any of that — because today, everyone here has followed the law to the exact T, and that's why they're here and that's why I've accepted them for citizenship."
Harpool said the respect of the rule of law makes the United States special.
"We do follow the law, whatever it is, and if we don't like it, we try to change it. Now that you all are citizens, you can get more involved in that process, too. If you think the laws ought to change, that's your right," he added.
"There's an obligation of being a citizen. It's not just paying taxes. It's voting; it's being engaged in your community. It's being part of an informed democracy, and we welcome all of your talents and all of your insights to that process. And I hope all the rest of us will take today to reflect how we can be better citizens, how we can better contribute to our society," Harpool said.