Independence Day came early on Tuesday as 100 people living in Stanislaus County stood shoulder to shoulder, raised their right hands and proudly became citizens of the United States of America.
“At that moment, I felt tears come. I could not help myself. How can I tell you?” said Nelson Amrhi minutes later, his eyes still misting.
He was among eight immigrants from Iran in the naturalization ceremony held at Modesto Junior College, the first time in more than 20 years that such an event has been held in Stanislaus County. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Fresno field office took the show on the road to accommodate the 100 local candidates, at the request of U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.
The country’s newest citizens came from 19 countries around the globe, from, alphabetically, Afghanistan to Vietnam. Nearly half – 47 – were born in Mexico, the top contributor of immigrants across the United States. Next highest in Tuesday’s ceremony was India, with 13.
Patterson Mayor Luis Molina sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a rich, full voice, and President Barack Obama welcomed the new citizens in a video.
“He said this is a land of opportunity, that there is no limit,” said Amrhi, who spoke no English when he arrived five years ago, an Assyrian Christian refugee from an Islamic land. He continued, “It’s true; if you want to be someone, you can. There is nothing to say you can’t because of your religion.”
Amrhi, 35, traveled with his sister and stayed with a cousin in Turlock before they found jobs and moved to Modesto about four years ago. He speaks four other languages and studied English mostly on his own. Eager to make his own way, he works part time at Texas Roadhouse and is taking auto-mechanic classes at MJC.
Rana Javed, a 41-year-old intensive care unit doctor at Memorial Medical Center, led the new citizens and others in the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance. He was Tuesday’s sole Pakistani immigrant, and can see himself someday running for public office – something a noncitizen can’t do.
The thought of casting a ballot on Election Day is enough for Lucelia Robles de Nunez, 49, of Riverbank, who left Mexico 20 years ago. Her English improved, she said, as she helped her 9-year-old daughter, Valeria, with homework.
“I love (Mexico),” she said, “but I love the United States; she adopted me. Now I can decide the future of this country with my vote.
“I (have been) living here for a long time,” the homemaker continued, “and I want to stay here forever.”
Denham, a Persian Gulf War veteran, splits from many conservative Republicans on immigration issues, having sponsored legislation for a faster path to citizenship for military members. He said he studied naturalization materials with his father-in-law, who is from Mexico, before he became a U.S. citizen in what Denham recalls as “one of the proudest times I’ve had.”
“Those (who) yearn for the freedoms of religion, the freedoms of the press, the freedoms of speech – we welcome you here to this great republic,” Denham told the audience. “This is an amazing country. We thank you for adding to the greatness of this great nation.”
Naturalization ceremonies are natural this time of year. The government expects to welcome 9,000 new citizens in more than 100 similar events across the nation from Monday through Friday, when the country celebrates its 238th birthday. On average, about 680,000 become citizens each year; 2008 set the record in recent times, with more than 1 million, followed by 777,416 last year.
In addition to those already mentioned, Tuesday’s event brought citizenship to seven people from the Philippines; five from Iraq; two each from Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, El Salvador, Cambodia, Spain and Vietnam; and one each from Columbia, Denmark, Fiji, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia and Ukraine.
Amrhi said he has no desire to leave his adopted homeland, and hopes someday to bring his parents and siblings here. With a contented smile, he summed up the lure of the American dream: “More opportunity. Freedom. More education. A better life.”
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.