Vicky Tshiama stood in a reception room of the Portland Public Library, proudly clutching a piece of paper that was a life-changer for her and more than 80 other immigrants on Friday.

Wearing a formal dress and a big smile, Tshiama recounted how she had worked hard to improve her English and her work skills since arriving in Maine from Congo six years ago after her husband won one of the sought-after diversity “lottery” spots given out by the U.S. Department of State. And while becoming accustomed to Maine winters was a challenge, Tshiama said she now loves her adopted state and its people.

“I’m so proud,” she said, holding high the official certificate declaring her a naturalized citizen of the United States. “I am waiting a long time and today I am an American citizen.”

Becoming citizens at a time when presidential politics has heated up the rhetoric on immigration policy, 84 immigrants recited the lengthy naturalization oath during an emotional ceremony at the library Friday morning, renouncing any “allegiance and fidelity” to their former countries and pledging to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Some wiped away tears after taking the oath or watching a video of national landmarks and other patriotic scenes set to a soaring rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Another video featured President Barack Obama congratulating the new citizens and advising them about their responsibilities for protecting and serving the country.

Many then posed for pictures with family while holding small American flags and naturalization certificates.

Giang Duong, originally from Vietnam, secured a front-row seat in the packed conference room and posed for pictures afterward with family members.


“I’m feeling very happy right now to be a citizen,” said Duong, who came to the United States as an international student six years ago and later married an American citizen. Federal immigration law requires permanent residents or “green card” holders who marry a U.S. citizen to wait at least three years before going through the naturalization process. “After I watched the president’s speech, I almost cried. It was very touching.”

Maine’s newest citizens came from 35 countries ranging from the small African nation of Eritrea (population 6.5 million) to China and India (1.3 billion each). The largest contingent came from Iraq, the native country of 16 naturalized citizens, followed by Somalia, Sudan, United Kingdom and Vietnam, each of which were the home countries for five citizens.

Anas Beshir, 19, and his mother, Sulafa Fadl, were among the five Sudanese who recited both the naturalization pledge and the Pledge of Allegiance in the room packed with families and children. They came to the U.S. a decade ago after Fadl’s husband was forced to flee Sudan because of political persecution and seek asylum in the U.S. Now living in Gorham, Fadl said Maine was a good place for her six children to gain an education and realize opportunities.

Beshir, who speaks flawless English and will soon begin his freshman year at Boston College, said he was thankful to all those who had “given him a guiding hand” during the past decade and said he hopes to pay that generosity forward by helping others.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services holds smaller naturalization ceremonies typically every other week at the agency’s Maine offices or in courthouses. The agency also periodically stages larger oath ceremonies in different locations in the Portland region and elsewhere around Maine. For instance, 30 new citizens took the oath on the lawn of the Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park on Aug. 12.

To be eligible for naturalization, immigrants must meet a lengthy list of criteria and pass a naturalization test. Permanent residents or “green card” holders must have lived in the U.S. for at least 5 years or for 3 years if they are married to a U.S. citizen. Immigrants serving in the U.S. armed forces also can qualify for naturalization.


Roughly 665,000 people became naturalized citizens across the U.S. last year, according to statistics provided by USCIS.

In Maine, Portland has become a primary entry point and place of settlement for thousands of immigrants arriving in the state through federal refugee resettlement programs or as asylees fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries. Roughly 12 percent of the city’s population was foreign-born and 14.4 percent of households spoke a primary language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures for the years 2009 to 2013.

That diversity can clearly be seen in Portland’s schools. The district reported recently that students spoke 55 different languages and that 32 percent of students spoke a primary language other English at home.

Friday’s ceremony came against a backdrop in which immigration policy has become a hot political topic, driven largely by Donald Trump and the other contenders for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016. Trump’s pledges to deport the nation’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants and their families, to bill Mexico for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to restrict legal immigration has resonated with some within the Republican Party, thereby forcing his competitors to respond. But his stances have outraged many immigrants and their supporters.

Presidential politics were clearly far from the minds of many of the newly minted citizens in Portland on Friday, judging by the responses from several people asked about the debate. But now that they are citizens, the 84 people who took the oath on Friday will have the right to vote in local and national elections. And some, such as Beshir, were clearly looking forward to the opportunity of participating in the process. As one of his final acts before leaving the library, Beshir stopped by a table set up by the League of Women Voters to fill out a voter registration card.


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