The room was filled with smiles. Immigrants from more than 40 countries around the world waited anxiously to take the oath that would make them citizens of the United States of America.
About 135 immigrants packed the room inside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) building, located at 101 W Ida B. Wells Drive. Together, in harmony, they recited the oath and later the Pledge of Allegiance. Their families waited patiently to take photos of them. It was a truly diverse scene.
Chakattrai Pongkan, a monk from Thailand wearing a traditional orange robe, sat next to immigrants from the Philippines, Belize, Poland, Germany, Venezuela and other countries from across the globe. There were many immigrants from China, India and Mexico, too.
Hasnah Hanna, a 71-year-old woman from Iraq, smiled during most of the ceremony. She needs a walker but says, through her son, that she wanted to become a U.S. citizen because she loves this country. Hanna’s son recorded every minute of the experience.
Jorge Inzunza, an immigrant from Chile, said he was excited to become a citizen so that he can vote in next year’s presidential primaries. He moved to Chicago more than six years ago, and he met his wife. Now, he has three children, and he is expecting his fourth.
“It was one of my main reasons to become a citizen. It was the right to vote,” he said. “I think if we are living here, we need to participate as well, working and voting and participating fully in the rights of the country.”
Thousands of immigrants become citizens every year. Illinois had 24,933 new citizens in 2017. That same year, 707,265 immigrants became citizens nationwide, according to USCIS, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The process of becoming a citizen can be long. Legal permanent residents can apply to become citizens after living in the country for five years. Immigrants have to pay $725, complete a background check and pass a civic and English test. Tuesday’s ceremony was the final step.
Under President Donald J. Trump’s administration, immigrants have had to wait twice as long to go through the naturalization process, according to The New York Times.
The newspaper reported that the Trump administration has diverted employees from the application review process, scrutinized applicants more thoroughly and introduced proposals that could make it more difficult for legal permanent residents to become citizens.
Since legal permanent residents can be deported, immigrant rights organizations have been encouraging them to seek citizenship and to vote once they’ve completed the process.
Tuesday’s ceremony featured a special speaker, Mick Dedvukaj, the USCIS district director for the Great Lakes District, which includes Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee. Dedvukaj talked about his experience of becoming a citizen after law school. He came to U.S. with his family from Albania. He told the new citizens about their new privileges and responsibilities.
“You are as American as someone whose family has been here for hundreds of years. You have all the rights and all the responsibilities. Please understand how important that is,” he said. “The power of our democracy comes from you, please understand that. Please register to vote, please use that power when we have elections. Get involved in your community. Be active in your community. Be active citizens… active in this democracy.”
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.