For 25 immigrants sworn in yesterday as U.S. citizens, the Oath of Allegiance ceremony ended a long journey toward freedom and a voice in democracy.
"It's the happiest day of my life," said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Javier Tejada, 32, one of 13 military members who became citizens. "I'll be able to take part in all the decisions in this country."
The immigrants took the oath during a special ceremony yesterday morning at the Department of Veteran Affairs in Northwest. They all had different life stories, but shared a common link in their desire to become Americans.
Petty Officer Tejada formerly served in the navy in his native Colombia and came to the U.S. at age 27. He worked for three years awaiting a green card that would allow him to join the U.S. Navy.
Non-U.S. citizens can serve in the military and receive certain exemptions from requirements for applying for citizenship.
Marine Sgt. Gamanuel Jean, 23, was born to Haitian parents who became citizens, and he joined the military as a way to improve his life and put himself on the path to citizenship.
About 700,000 immigrants are sworn in annually, about 8,000 of whom are in the military, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. More than 32,500 service members have been naturalized since September 11.
Doris Etter, 36, of Colombia, married an American and wanted to become one, too.
"I feel proud about him and I feel proud about my country," she said. "I'm proud about being an American."
During the ceremony, the citizenship and immigration services recognized two naturalized citizens for patriotic service with its American by Choice Award.
Katja Bullock came to the U.S. from Germany in 1965 and is now a special assistant to President Bush. She held the same position under President Reagan and the first President Bush.
"It is a very awesome culmination of my career in public service," Miss Bullock said after receiving the award. "Only in America can you find an immigrant working for three presidents of the United States."
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, a native of the Philippines who spent 34 years in the military, was also recognized.
Emilio T. Gonzalez, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that people worldwide hope to become Americans because they want freedom and opportunities for success.
"I come from a part of America — South Florida — where people literally wash ashore trying to get to the United States," said Mr. Gonzalez, who came to the U.S. from Cuba. He said other countries "look to us because we are an immigration success story."