Photo by Curt Yeomans
One-hundred thirty-six people wave American flags Friday after they were proclaimed new U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the Morrow-based National Archives at Atlanta.
MORROW — Venezuela native Ayaharyt Duffy giddily waved a small American flag at the National Archives at Atlanta Friday as she listened to U.S. immigration officials and waited for that moment when she could finally say she was a U.S. citizen.
Many of the 136 prospective Americans sat quietly and listened to Paul Onyanto, field director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration’s Atlanta field office, talk about the virtues of U.S. citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at the archives.
However, Duffy kept a constant smile and continued to keep her flag raised slightly above her head.
Finally, she had to put her flag down when it came time for her to lift her right hand and pledge to forsake any allegiance to Venezuela’s government while simultaneously promising to support her new home country. Then the other new citizens joined her in proudly waving the red, white and blue.
“It was wonderful,” said Duffy. “I’m just so excited to be able to call myself an American citizen.”
Duffy’s experience is one that is repeated every month by hundreds of new U.S. citizens at the National Archives. The federal facility, which held occasional naturalization ceremonies around special holidays in 2010 and 2011, has been hosting the ceremonies twice a month since January.
“The National Archives documents our immigrant experience, documents citizenships, our census records, naturalization petition records,” said National Archives at Atlanta Regional Administrator Jim McSweeney. “They all tell the story of the immigrant experience and it just made sense to bring that to new and future citizens.”
McSweeney said the archives currently has naturalization ceremonies scheduled to continue taking place twice a month through the end of 2013.
Cheryl Johnson, section leader for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration’s Atlanta field office, said the benefits of holding the naturalization ceremonies at the National Archives is that both are part of the federal government and it has the space to hold large ceremonies.
Friday’s naturalization ceremony doubled as a unveiling ceremony for a new National Archives exhibit that features a replica of an immigration mural that was once part of the immigration center at Ellis Island. Johnson said the exhibit will temporarily reduce the number of new citizens who are naturalized during each ceremony held at the archives.
“We normally hold 300 [new citizens per ceremony], but because they have the exhibit going on, we have limited seating so 150 is what we’ve cut it down to,” said Johnson. She said the number will go back up once the exhibit ends.
One of the more emotional moments came when Atlanta resident and German immigrant Benjamin Hirsch recounted his experiences as a young Jewish boy fleeing from the Nazis. He said his flight from the Holocaust took him from Germany to France before he eventually escaped to America, via Portugal, as an orphan in 1941. Four of his six siblings also managed to escape to America.
“My siblings and I were among the fortunate few who found a refuge in the United States between 1933 and 1945 — the years of the Nazis’ war against the Jews,” said Hirsch.
Many people who become U.S. citizens during these ceremonies often become overjoyed by the poignancy of the proceedings. In addition to hearing from Onyanto about the meaning of being a U.S. citizen, immigration officials also play a video message from President Barack Obama on the responsibilities that come with citizenship.
Marietta resident and South Africa native William Warder struggled to keep himself from crying as he took the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the ceremony. Warder and his wife, Janet, were among those who became naturalized citizens Friday, but he said they have been living in the U.S. for 12 years.
“I wanted to be a U.S. citizen, so this was a very emotional, big event for me and my wife,” he said.
Duffy said the fact that the archives is the repository of American history was not lost on her as she took an oath of allegiance to America.
“It exposes you to the history of this nation, and that makes the ceremony more special to me,” she said.
Jonesboro resident and Nigeria native Jane Madu said she, too, was excited to be able to call herself an American. “I love America, so I wanted to be called an American citizen,” she said.
Madu has lived in the U.S. for four years, and praised the choice to hold the ceremony at the National Archives.
“I liked that they had the immigration mural hanging up in there,” she said. “It was very inspiring.”
Madu then ran up to Morrow Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke and asked to have her picture taken with him.
Morrow officials have partnered with the Archives to host the naturalization ceremonies and Burke said he tries to attend as many of them as he can so he can help make sure the new citizens have positive memories of gaining their citizenship in his city.
The mayor added that he wants the new citizens to think of Morrow with just one word when they leave the archives — hospitality. Community volunteers from the city attend the ceremonies and offer greetings of “welcome” to their newfound fellow Americans.
“As these people have become now a United States citizen, I think that a city of the United States should embrace them and I want it to be Morrow,” said Burke.