Forty-seven people gathered inside the Chicago City Council Chambers to take a long-awaited oath to become a citizen of the United States.
The special naturalization ceremony held at City Council on Tuesday welcomed immigrants from 26 countries all over the world.
“This is only the second time we’ve held a ceremony at City Council,” said Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “We have ceremonies at least three times a week either in U.S. District Court or in our USCIS office. We also try to go out to communities and do ceremonies in schools and libraries as much as possible.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office contacted USCIS to orchestrate the second ceremony held in City Council Chambers, she said. The first one took place in June.
“This is really a perfect fit,” Cabrera said. “This is a city of immigrants and our job is to naturalize people when they’re eligible. It’s a wonderful partnership with the mayor and his office.”
Emanuel was the keynote speaker at the event, delivering a heartfelt speech about his own family’s experience with immigration.
“All of us have a journey,” Emanuel said. “My mother and father put the photos of our relatives that never made it to America on our family room wall, either from Eastern Europe or Palestine. … It was their way of reminding us that all of the people that never got here are never going to have same opportunities we would.”
Emanuel then directed the message from his parents to the newly sworn-in citizens.
“You have a responsibility never to waste a day and this chance,” he said. “There’s not a day that goes by that that responsibility doesn’t weigh and that opportunity doesn’t shine on us.”
Emanuel also spoke of one of the immigrants being sworn in, Christian Soto from Guatemala City, who currently serves in the U.S. Marines.
Soto, 35, has family here that immigrated more than 30 years ago.
“When I immigrated at the age of two, my mother said we came to this country to better ourselves, ” Soto said. The “process was very long, and I began at the age of seven.”
For Soto, the ceremony brought his experience here full circle.
“The poignant speech [Mayor Rahm Emanuel] gave was very reminiscent of what my mother instilled in me,” Soto said.
People who seek U.S. citizenship typically first must become a permanent resident and hold a Green Card for five years before applying six months after that time period passes.
Sahima Ameer, 22, from Sri Lanka, was a permanent resident for seven years.
“We’ve been here for so long,” Ameer said. “It’s something that is very valuable.”
Ameer added that it was a big deal for Sri Lankans to have a passport because it would make traveling less of a hassle. Leaving and returning to the United States with a green card and no passport can be difficult.
U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) was among the speakers at the naturalization ceremony, touching on the importance of continuing to give benefits to those that immigrate to the United States, especially providing the means to offer a good education.
“We’ve got to get kids through school,” Gutierrez said. “There is no money from the federal government, so it’s going to take private money like the money raised by the mayor through the DREAM Act.”
The DREAM Act, in essence, allows qualified, undocumented youth with good moral character to obtain a higher-level education and conditional path to citizenship without the fear of deportation.
“We’re on the road to make Chicago the friendliest immigration city in the United States,” Gutierrez said.
The opportunity to get an education brought Amina Sanni to the United States from Nigeria.
“That’s the huge part of it, education.” Sanni said. “Education, education, that’s the good thing with the freedom that they have in here it’s a huge difference from my country.”
Sanni said in Nigeria she was unable to get a higher education because she was not born into the privileged class and did not have enough money.
“I’ve been done with my high school since 2001, and I have not been able to get into university,” She said. “It’s very hard and you have to know people.”
Sanni is currently studying at Malcolm X College. She will finish there in the spring and plans on getting bachelor’s degree to eventually become a nurse.Jong Ho Jin, 24, is an accounting student at Northern Illinois University and was one of the 47 immigrants at the ceremony.”This is my tenth year in the states, and I appreciate my parents for making the decision to send their son to the other side of the earth to live with my aunt and uncle,” Jin said. “Without their love I would not be standing here, they have suffered for me.”
Family was the main topic for immigrants and speakers at the ceremony, both sacrifices families made and the bond they share once family members are legal citizens.
Gutierrez said he met a 104-year-old woman who applied to be a citizen after her 78-year-old son first expressed interest
“She said to me, ‘I want to be like my children before I die. They’re all citizens, and I wanna die a citizen of the same country as them,’” he said. “That really is the cornerstone of our immigration policy: keeping families together.”
Kaitlyn Cubacub, Trevor Conley, Aaron Bulnes, Karla Venegas, Sarai Flores and James Foster contributed reporting.