Welcome Home: Thousands Become New Citizens

It's a scene that takes place about every four weeks here in Houston, thousands of immigrants becoming full-fledged American citizens in a mass ceremony that ends a long road from most of them. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports.

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If you didn't know better, you'd think you were at a basketball game at Berry Auditorium in northwest Harris County, with a full parking lot, 5,000 people in the seats, ushers, security guards and even music playing over the public address system. But this isn't a basketball game. It's a naturalization ceremony.

"It's one of those things that you get that knot building up in your throat where you want to cry but you're just not going to do it. Yeah, it's that great."

About half of the people in the audience, 2,407 to be exact, including Roberto Lucerogrado, are new U.S. citizens. They've come from 121 countries and many are dressed in suits and nice dresses, with their families alongside to celebrate the day. Bernardo Isaza-Hurtado is in the front row. He's lived here for most of his life and even spent time in the military. But up until now, he wasn't an official American citizen.

"I had to do the paperwork end of it, but you know it's all in the heart and the mind. I enjoy and I love the freedoms that American offers, the opportunity we have as a country. Everybody here is from different walks of life and we bring great things to America, but we also get great things from America. The opportunity is there. You just have to take it and make the best of it."

Next to his mother, local boxer and World Lightweight Champion Juan Diaz has a smile on his face. He's a spectator for once, watching as his mom pick up a certificate that proves she's an American citizen.

"My father is a U.S. citizen. My younger brother is a citizen and I'm a citizen of this country. It's very important for all of us to become U.S. citizens because this country has given us to much, so many opportunities that it's very important to be a citizen."

For most of these new citizens, it hasn't been an easy process to get to this point. Sylvia Halfhill with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says there's a long list of requirements to become a citizen.

"They have to put in five years of permanent residence, or three years if you're married to an American citizen for the full three years. They have to apply for this and they have to read, write, speak and understand English, but of good moral character. They're interviewed by an officer. Then they get on the court's docket to get on a ceremony."

She says this is a common scene in Houston, with naturalization ceremonies just like this every 4-6 weeks. USCIS welcomes about 70,000 new Americans each year in similar ceremonies across the nation. You can see a picture to the Houston ceremony on our website, KUHF.org.

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