As Americans across the country headed to the beach and fired up the grill to celebrate the Fourth of July, more than 9,400 people had special, uniquely American plans for the holiday: officially becoming U.S. citizens.
One of those brand new citizens was Barata Hilla. Originally from Ghana, she was naturalized in a ceremony Sunday at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate. In an interview before the ceremony, she said she couldn’t wait for the “all-important occasion.”
“In a nutshell, I am happy,” said Hilla, who moved to the U.S. in 2014 and works as a certified nursing assistant at the University of Virginia hospital. “I don’t have to be worried anymore about checking my green card, and that alone is a relief.”
The journey is far from over, though — Hilla has an adopted son in Ghana whom she hopes to bring to the United States soon.
“My prayer is that after all these things, they’ll give me the chance to be able to bring him, so I can see him become American,” Hilla said.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is holding 170 naturalization ceremonies between June 30 and July 7, including a White House ceremony with President Joe Biden and a virtual ceremony for military members serving overseas conducted by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Alexandru Stepan, a Virginia resident from Moldova and member of the U.S. Army Reserve, led the Pledge of Allegiance at his ceremony Sunday at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, where he took the oath of citizenship with his wife.
Stepan said becoming an American citizen will allow him to establish a better future for his two U.S.-born sons, ages 2 and 4.
“This is basically a country for my kids, and I will be everywhere where my kids will be living. So first things first: Think about the future generation,” he said.
Stepan and his wife were among 40 individuals from 33 countries who became American citizens at the Mount Vernon ceremony. On the same day, at Monticello, 20 people from 12 countries swore their allegiance to the U.S.
“This year marks the 245th birthday of our Nation,” acting USCIS director Tracy Renaud said in a statement. “We are committed to promoting policies and procedures that ensure we operate fairly and efficiently, and continue to encourage and embrace the full participation of the newest Americans in our democracy.”
For Joan Meyer Hubbard and Paul Hubbard, Canadian citizens who moved to the U.S. in 1985 on visas for employees of international organizations, the U.S. is already home. The couple, who took the oath at Mount Vernon, have three American children and seven grandchildren living here.
But they’re especially excited to finally vote, after decades in this country. “As odd as that seems, it’s a big thing,” Paul Hubbard said.
The recent ceremonies were held as the Biden administration ramps up efforts to make it easier for permanent residents to become U.S. citizens.
On Friday, USCIS announced its “Interagency Strategy for Promoting Naturalization,” a cross-department working group aimed at smoothing over the naturalization process.
“Becoming a United States citizen is a tremendous privilege,” Mayorkas said in a statement. “This strategy will ensure that aspiring citizens are able to pursue naturalization through a clear and coordinated process.”
USCIS has also rescinded the Trump administration’s changes to make the civics test longer. In addition, the State Department revised its policy to make it easier for married same-sex couples who have babies abroad through assisted productive technology to confer birthright U.S. citizenship on their children, so long as one parent is a U.S. citizen.
The initiatives follow years of cuts to legal immigration under the Trump administration. Among other changes, that administration issued a policy to make it harder for low-income immigrants to become permanent residents and attempted to nearly double the application fee to apply for citizenship.
Many U.S. permanent residents also saw their citizenship cases delayed by the pandemic, as USCIS was forced to halt huge naturalization ceremonies for several months and then hold smaller ceremonies to maintain social distancing.
A May report by Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps immigrants apply for green cards and citizenship, found a backlog of roughly 700,000 green card holders who applied for U.S. citizenship, increasing the processing time to 10 months.
But Stepan said it “was worth the wait” to have the chance to have his ceremony on the Fourth of July.
Speaking before the ceremony, he discussed plans to don his military parade uniform on Sunday, the third time he has had the chance to wear it. He said he also planned to bring his 4-year-old son to the ceremony.
“I really hope he can remember that,” Stepan said.