— Every year, in naturalization ceremonies throughout the United States, hundreds of thousands of immigrants become American citizens.
Seventy-five soon-to-be Americans from 31 countries stood quietly, hands over hearts, as opera diva Rachel Durkin sang the national anthem under the rotunda of Federal Hall in downtown Manhattan. That's where George Washington took the oath of office as America’s first president in 1789.
Within moments, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was leading them in the Oath of Allegiance that would formalize their transformation into American citizens.
Security was tight as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson administered the oath of allegiance to America's newest citizens at Federal Hall, New York, May 22, 2014. (Adam Phillips/VOA)
A total of 75 immigrants from 31 countries took the Oath of Allegiance in Federal Hall in New York City, May 22, 2014. (Adam Phillips/VOA)
After the naturalization ceremony, Lesya Lysyj stands with her husband Bo and her son Lev on the steps of Federal Hall overlooking the New York Stock Exchange, May 22, 2014. (Adam Phillips/VOA)
Isatu Lama Bah, originally of Sierra Leone, finally became a citizen after a long and difficult legal and bureaucratic road, New York, May 22, 2014. (Adam Phillips/VOA)
An array of ethnic and national dress was on display - from headscarves to traditional African robes and colorful Latin shawls. But Secretary Johnson welcomed them into one united American family.
“I suppose this happens to you a lot. People look at you. They hear your accent. They look at the shade of your skin. They hear your name. They say ‘where are you from?’ Well, today, from this moment forward, you are fully entitled to tell them ‘I am an American. Just like you….’" he said to applause from the crowd.
Emotions ran high after the ceremony. Lesya Lysyj , who emigrated from Canada, grasped her naturalization certificate and a small American flag in one hand, and wiped away a tear with the other, while her 10-year-old son Lev looked on.
She said she was overwhelmed by the number of cultures that come together in the United States, where she said immigrants are trying to make a better life for themselves and their children.
Those wishing to become American citizens must walk a long legal and bureaucratic road whose outcome is uncertain. Applicants must demonstrate basic knowledge of American history, and how the American government and Constitution work.
Isatu Lama Bah from Sierra Leone was relieved that those hurdles are now behind her.
“I’ve been waiting for this day all my life. You know, when you are not a citizen, you are stressed. Anything can happen. You can go back to your country for good. Here, it’s more opportunity. It’s the country of opportunity. So I’m happy,” she said.
So was Mamdou Gueye from Ivory Coast in West Africa, who said the naturalization ceremony was a big moment for him. He said being a citizen of the United States "means everything" to him.
Gueye emphasized the point with a heartfelt rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner," a song he says he now has a lifetime to learn.