It’s often said that the United States is a country of immigrants. But rarely do we see that immigration system at work as clearly as on Tuesday afternoon when a group of new Americans took the Oath of Citizenship.
An air of anticipation and excitement filled the Barbieri Courtroom on the Gonzaga University campus as 60 immigrants waited to complete the final step in the process of becoming a United States citizen. Crowding one side of the room and the balcony, family, friends, and supporters looked on as Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson called the court to order.
In her introduction, Judge Peterson emphasized the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and noted her own ancestors who came to this country seeking opportunity. Then a representative from the Department of Homeland Security presented the candidates, beginning with an impressive list of countries of origin, which gave an idea of the diversity of people going through the immigration system.
"Today, we have candidates from 31 countries represented," he said before listing each of the countries in alphabetical order.
The candidates then raised their right hands and recited the oath of citizenship. After the ceremony, I caught up with Benoit Mukanya, a former refugee from the Congo and asked what this moment meant to him.
"I feel very happy and at the same time, I feel like I need to give more than the country gave to me," Benoit said.
Benoit arrived in Spokane as a refugee in 2013 and through World Relief Spokane, attended citizenship classes to prepare for naturalization.
"They teach me to know this is a country of dreams," Benoit said "It's a country of hospitalities, and they make me feel like it's my country too. And they teach us to trust each other and live like one community.”
Vanessa Mathisen is an immigration attorney and legal services director for World Relief Spokane. She gave me an outline idea of the steps Benoit and other new citizens had been through to reach this point.
"They have to have filed a naturalization application with USCIS, which is the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, and then they have to go to an interview with an immigration officer," Mathisen said. "And it's through that process that they establish their legal eligibility for citizenship. It can be a long process. It can take anywhere between four to six months to a year and a half."
It was a day of celebration for these new citizens and their families, but Mathisen also told me that her job as an immigration attorney has changed dramatically in recent years.
"It has gotten much more difficult in the past few years to get people through this process," Mathisen said. "The USCIS, they've been issuing different policies that are different than the way that they used to process applications. And so they're scrutinizing things that they didn't used to scrutinize. They're issuing more denials than they used to. So my office has had to file a lot of appeals on some of their decisions."
Following the naturalization ceremony, the new citizens from all over the world gathered together to share a slice of celebratory cake as they marked the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new life as an American.