By E.C. Barrett
Witnessing the naturalization of 49 people from 27 countries on a brisk but sunny first day of February in downtown Ithaca was a welcome respite from the discord gripping the country.
From the bright-faced Boy Scouts lining the marbled lobby to welcome new citizens, representatives from the League of Women Voters waiting outside the courtroom with their stacks of registration forms, public servants buoyantly bustling around the courtroom with their papers and schedules, to the fidgeting and laughing and solemn-faced 49 about-to-be citizens and their families and friends, there was much to revive a feeling of hope in our nation.
Let me introduce you to a few of its newest citizens.
I caught 22-year-old Chongyi Chen, formerly of the Republic of China, as she was leaving the courtroom with two middle-aged women beside her. I asked her why she wanted to become a U.S. citizen.
“My grandma moved here 20 years ago, so my dad moved here, and most of my family moved here, so that’s why I decided to become a U.S. citizen,” she said.
What do you want to do now that you’re a U.S. Citizen?
“I want to go to school here and graduate here and look for a job,” Chen replied.
Alexandru Balas, formerly of Romania, was helping his wife, Tracy Marvin, pack their daughters – Julia and Madeline Balas – into winter coats following the ceremony when I approached them. They were in a hurry, but smiling. Why did Alexandru become a citizen?
“My wife is a U.S. citizen and we have two daughters and it felt right, finally. I could have applied for citizenship four years ago but I didn’t feel it yet,” he said. “But every time I come back from Europe I feel free. It’s weird and I know it sounds cheesy but that’s how I really feel. I feel like I can go on the street and people don’t mind if I’m dressed differently or something like this. And I can speak my mind.”
And what is Balas looking forward to now that he’s officially a citizen?
“Not having to worry about how I’ll be treated at the borders,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with no problems at the border but as a foreigner it’s always that feeling of: ‘Well something could go wrong, you never know what law or other types of executive orders could be passed that could get someone stranded.’ So it was always stressful coming back into the United States even though I was a permanent resident. There was always a little bit of a worry.”
Ghazala Amin, formerly of Pakistan, was standing with her family taking selfies at the front of the courtroom when I spoke with her. She was radiant in her new citizenship and her family’s ebullient smiles were contagious. Why did Amin become a citizen?
“I feel like it’s who I am,” she said.
As for what Amin is looking most forward to with her newfound status: “I can do whatever I want, I can go wherever I want. It’s a great feeling. I am so proud.”
Amin’s daughter, Amina Ahmad, and son-in-law, Muhammad Wattoo, became U.S. citizens in Pennsylvania in 2006. Their son bounced into the conversation to announce, arms spread wide: “I’ve always been a U.S. citizen,” he said, and the courtroom filled with the family’s laughter.
“He was born in Ithaca,” his mother said, mussing his hair.
When Ahmad and Wattoo answer the same questions about becoming citizens, their voices weave in and out of each other.
“We chose to live here, we wanted to live here so we were just waiting for the time to come when we could apply,” Ahmad said.
What changed for them after they became citizens?
“Well the ability to vote, obviously you feel empowered, you have a say. It is a privilege to be a U.S. citizen,” Wattoo said. “I feel more practically safe, and secure in a way. Traveling is a lot easier. Having a U.S. passport. It’s great.”
Zelda Blaine, who now holds citizenship in the U.K. as well as the U.S., posed for pictures with her husband and their three daughters after the ceremony. Why did she decide to become a citizen?
“To be honest, it’s kind of a dream fulfilled, because I always wanted to come to America. I married an American. I have American children,” she said. “And it just seemed, to be honest, with the way things were going with the election, when the candidates were coming up, that gave me a big push to get it done.
“I love America; I love American people. I hope the rest of the world is watching and not thinking that those are American values that are being portrayed right now, because I think Americans are very generous, welcoming people,” Blaine added, tearing up as she looked around the room. “I’m going to get emotional. But I’m very proud of America’s immigrant roots and I think it’s shown recently the way everyone’s come together. So I’m very hopeful. I know I seem a little sad right now but I think people will stand together and we’ll make this a safe, welcoming place for people.”