By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Fifty people from 22 countries raised their right hands Friday in U.S. District Judge Beth Deere’s courtroom. Journeys that had taken decades were ending in an 11 a.m. ceremony. The participants had been examined by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, met English language requirements, and passed a citizenship test that many native-born Americans would fail. After taking the Oath of Allegiance, they were no longer from 22 countries. They were from one.
Afterwards, each came forward to receive a certificate and a small American flag, and to introduce themselves and their countries of origin. Their foreign accents ranged from thick to nonexistent. Eleven were from Mexico, including one who finished his introduction with “Woo, pig sooie.” Another said, “I’m from Egypt. No, I’m from USA. USA! USA!” Afterwards, U.S. Rep. French Hill said in a brief speech, “My fellow Americans … welcome to your country.”
Among the 50 were Aristides and Jeannette Urdaneta, immigrants from Venezuela. They came to the United States in 2003 on a work visa with their son, Kevin, now a teenager who also became an American citizen that day by virtue of his parents’ new citizenship. He’s an Eagle Scout and the state president of Health Occupation Students of America, and he wants to be a doctor someday. While in the United States, the Urdanetas had a daughter, Albanie, who will be 10 next month and is an American by birth. She’s about to join a dance company, she said.
The Urdanetas are the second and third generations in their family to escape oppression. Jeannette’s father had immigrated to Venezuela from Albania years earlier to escape its communist dictatorship. (That’s where the name “Albanie” comes from.) As socialist dictator Hugo Chavez grabbed more and more power in Venezuela, her father would predict with eerie accuracy the government’s next move based on his own experiences. “Things were getting worse by the month, by the day,” Aristides said.
In search of a better life, Aristides began looking for jobs where he could put his computer skills to work in America, Canada, Australia or Spain. The best opportunity came with CAT Squared, a Conway-based software company serving the food industry and founded by immigrants from South Africa. They spent six years under a work visa and then applied for permanent residency. Eventually, Jeannette became a Spanish teacher at Maumelle Charter High School.
By taking the Oath of Allegiance, the new American citizens declared that they “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity” to their home countries.
That’s a powerful statement – to say that you’re no longer associated with the country of your birth. I asked them how difficult it was to take that step. Their Venezuelan heritage will always be a part of who they are, they said, but they’re not looking back. “We made a decision that this is our country, and we have to stand for the United States now,” Aristides said.
Yes, I asked them about illegal immigration – specifically, about their level of sympathy for those who didn’t do it the right way, like they did. They did not have an easy answer. They said it is unacceptable for people to do things illegally, but the situation is complex, and individual situations need to be considered.
From the front of the room, the 50 people taking the oath of office seemed to be a stoic group. Not many showed much emotion, although one new Ukranian-American shed quite a few tears, perhaps related to the turmoil her homeland is experiencing. I picked out Aristides because his face seemed the most joyful of anyone I saw. Both he and Jeannette said they got a little emotional. Kevin said he did, too. “I had a moment when the judge first said, ‘My fellow Americans,’ I was holding back the tears. … At that moment, I felt just all the history in my family, from oppression to freedom back to oppression back to freedom,” he said.
Albanie feels the same weight, and she has plans to do something about it. “When I grow up, what I would like to do is, I would like to get a job where I could get a lot of money and I could buy tickets for the rest of my family to move here and experience what freedom is like,” she said.
I hope she can, and I hope Kevin becomes a doctor. Welcome to your country, Urdanetas family. It’s your home now.