Saturday, July 03, 2004

STLtoday - News - St. Louis City Top immigration official welcomes new Americans

STLtoday - News - St. Louis City / County
Top immigration official welcomes new Americans here
By Patrice Relerford
Of the Post-Dispatch

Seventy-two people representing 32 nations took citizenship oaths at the Old Courthouse.

Speeches about America being a nation of immigrants were not important to everyone in the audience at the Old Courthouse on Friday. Grace Duong, 2, cared more about playing with the orange stuffed "Garfield" toy that her father had given her than watching her mother, Hai Thay Nguyen, take the oath of citizenship.

When Grace grew tired of the cat, she looked for her mother but lost her in the crowd. She began to cry and call for her mother.

But Nguyen had left her seat to receive her naturalization certificate and to have her picture taken with Eduardo Aguirre Jr., director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber of the Eastern District of Missouri.

As soon as the picture was taken, Nguyen rushed back to her husband and daughter. She smiled and held Grace's hand while clutching the envelope that contained her naturalization certificate. Grace quieted down.

Nationwide, about 16,000 people were being sworn in as citizens this week in 122 ceremonies. Aguirre attended only a few of the ceremonies, but he could remember his own - he arrived from Cuba in the early 1960s when he was 15 years old as part of 14,000 children sent by their parents to flee Fidel Castro's regime. He was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in 1970 in Houston. He later became a banker.

In his remarks, Aguirre said that his agency was making a high priority of reducing a backlog of residency and citizenship applications but that post-9/11 security measures such as background checks would not be compromised.

"We're going to retain what makes America great by keeping our open doors," he said. "But we're going to make sure they're well-guarded."

At the Old Courthouse, Nguyen was one of 72 people representing 32 countries. They were called in groups based on their countries of origin. The largest group, 19, was from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nguyen and her husband, Duy Duong, had moved to St. Louis from Vietnam; he became a citizen in 1999, and they live in the south part of the city.

Asked what she was looking forward to doing now, she replied, "I want to travel with a U.S. passport and write a petition for my mother to come here."

Her husband reminded her that she needed to register to vote before the upcoming election.

Long Bui, 78, of St. Charles, also stood when Vietnam was called. He has been in the U.S. for more than 20 years and seemed relaxed, an American flag sticking out of his shirt pocket. His daughter Lisa Bui stood by him and took pictures.

Martha Elias, 13, of St. Louis, leaned on a wall and smiled proudly as her sister, Harnet Nuguse, 28, was sworn in. "She's the only one from Eritrea," Martha said.

Judge Webber administered the oath of naturalization. "Those who gain their citizenship by choice tend to appreciate it more than those who gain it automatically," he said.

Added Aguirre, "It's a great day to be an American, but an even better day to become one."


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