UNION, NJ — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services District Director Tamika Gray had a simple message for 29 Union County residents who took the oath of allegiance to become American citizens: “Welcome home.”
With Kean University’s Liberty Hall Museum as a backdrop, the new citizens, originally from 19 different countries, gathered Tuesday, June 18, with their families in a large white tent. Liberty Hall is the Revolutionary War-era home of William Livingston, New Jersey’s first elected governor and a signer of the U.S. Constitution; it was decorated with lights and a string trio softly played music.
The immigrants said they recognized that theirs was no ordinary naturalization ceremony.
“I feel so lucky!” Melanie Omay, of Union, said. She came to the United States from the Philippines eight years ago and was surrounded by an enthusiastic group of family members. “My sister and mom were sworn in as citizens in Newark and it wasn’t like this.”
While everyone enjoyed refreshments in Liberty Hall’s carriage house, several of the new citizens admitted to getting choked up as they vowed to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the United States. Mary Ngugi, of Elizabeth, originally from Kenya, said this happened to her.
“It was very emotional,” she said. “It is something that I have been waiting for. I have been here for more than 10 years. I am proud to be an American now. I am not an outsider now. I am in.”
The naturalization ceremony is an annual event at Kean. This year the candidates for citizenship were addressed by U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, who represents New Jersey’s 8th District, and Kean University Board of Trustees Chairwoman Ada Morell, both originally from Cuba, and by John Kean Sr., president of Liberty Hall Museum.
“For more than 240 years, the United States has embraced a tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world,” Morell said. “We must protect that tradition because our diversity is our strength. It gives us a tremendous advantage over other nations.”
Sires shared his own story as an immigrant and elected official to demonstrate the promise of the United States.
“My grandmother was 83 years old when she became an American citizen because she wanted to vote for her grandson, who was running for mayor,” he said.
Kean, whose family dates back to Colonial times in the United States, said citizenship brings responsibilities.
“One of the major responsibilities is the privilege of voting for the candidate of your choice, an opportunity for many that would be impossible in your home country. Use it wisely,” he said.
Seana Marie Mapano of Elizabeth, who also emigrated from the Philippines, said she was on “cloud nine” throughout the ceremony.
“With all of the messages from the guest speakers, it was overwhelming,” she said. “They embraced us even though we come from other countries.”