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Ridge Touts New  Citizenship Office - 2003-09-17

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge attended a swearing-in ceremony for new U.S. citizens Wednesday, using the opportunity to promote a new office dedicated to helping legal immigrants achieve citizenship.

Tom Ridge congratulated more than a dozen new citizens in a packed hall in Washington, using the occasion to unveil plans for the new U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service office. Congress called for the new organization last year in the Homeland Security Act, in a bid to enhance national security by separating the responsibility for immigration services from that of the border patrol.

Mr. Ridge stressed that despite a new vigilance to protect the nation from terrorism, legal immigrants are still welcome in the United States. "At a time in our country's history where freedom is under attack, and terrorists seek to undermine and destroy that union, it is more important than ever before that we honor those who seek to promote it and to strengthen it," he said.

Thirteen new citizens were sworn-in during the ceremony, hailing from such nations as Ethiopia, Vietnam, Ecuador, and Cuba. As he congratulated the new Americans, Mr. Ridge told them they will have help understanding their new place in U.S. communities. "The sole mission of this office is to promote public awareness of both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship," he said.

Mr. Ridge said the office will enhance educational opportunities in English, civics, and history to help newcomers get work permits and integrate into American society. The office is also expected to speed up citizenship applications, eliminating an existing backlog.

But the new head of the citizenship office, Eduardo Aguirre, himself a naturalized citizen from Cuba, reminded the crowd that their new roles require them to serve, as well as be served.

"Everyone in this land is privileged with the opportunity to realize his or her dream. We are, however, equally challenged to give of ourselves through our allegiance, patriotism, and active participation in government and community," he said.

Greeting the new citizens in both English and Spanish, Mr. Aguirre joked that only in America can an immigrant become head of the nation's immigration services.

September 17 is designated as Citizenship Day in the United States. Cities across the nation are holding celebrations and swearing-in ceremonies. Immigrants approved for naturalization all take the same oath, swearing their fidelity to the United States, its Constitution, and its laws.