LEWISTON – Than Win Tun clasped his hands and bowed his head Friday as he accepted a small American flag and a certificate affirming his new status as a U.S. citizen.

The 53-year-old native of Myanmar — where individuals typically do not have surnames — and his wife, Soe Soe Thein, 44, and their daughter, Lin Let Thiri, 22, were among 54 immigrants who became citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center.

In addition to the adult family members, Than Win Tun’s and Soe Soe Thein’s two younger children, William, 14, and Brittany, 12, also became citizens Friday. A 2001 law grants citizenship to children born outside the United States when a parent is naturalized.

Soe Soe Thein said she was “so excited” to become an American. The day was more than 10 years in the making. The family came to the United States when the couple decided they wanted better education for their three children. Than Win Tun came in 2004 and his wife and children arrived two years later. They now live in Bristol.

Than Win Tun and Soe Soe Thein speak some English, but preferred to let their elder daughter do most of the talking after Friday’s ceremony.

Lin Let Thiri said citizenship was a “dream come true,” and her family was ecstatic and grateful. “(In Myanmar), we couldn’t speak for ourselves, not as much freedom,” she said. “Here, there are so many freedoms, like the freedom of speech.”

Myanmar came under military rule after a coup in 1962, and the country’s 2010 elections were widely considered by western nations to be undemocratic.

Lin Let Thiri said her family members are eager to exercise their rights as citizens, such as obtaining passports, becoming eligible for jury duty and voting.

“We would like to vote. In the (2012) election, we couldn’t vote, but we liked Obama, so we just prayed he would win,” she said. “In our last country, we couldn’t vote and there wasn’t a people’s voice.”

To gain citizenship, the three adults in the family had to complete interviews in English with Citizenship and Immigration Services officials, pass a test on English, history and civics, and pay a $680 fee per person.

Any candidate for naturalization must have a green card for at least five years, have been in the United States for at least 30 months and be of good moral character.

Friday’s ceremony was held a day after the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping immigration bill that provides a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the United States illegally, strengthens border security and increases the number of visas available for skilled workers.

If the bill passes in the House, a less publicized section could affect some of Maine’s newest citizens. While current law allows citizens to sponsor siblings for citizenship, the immigration bill in the House would bar citizens from sponsoring their brothers, sisters or married children older than 31.

As Than Win Tun and his family left Friday to celebrate, the proud patriarch spoke.

“Our family is very happy,” he said.

Karen Antonacci can be contacted at 791-6377 or at:

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