CARBONDALE — In a Southern Illinois University Carbondale auditorium crowded with people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, 49 individuals became naturalized citizens of the United States on Thursday.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois hosted the naturalization ceremony, an official court proceeding open to the public, in the Lesar Law Building.
The district is one of three federal judicial districts in Illinois, serving the 38 southernmost counties. District Judge Phil Gilbert presided over the ceremony.
“This naturalization ceremony is a pivotal milestone in your life as well as your family and friends’,” Gilbert told the crowd. “It is a day that I hope you remember for the rest of your life, for becoming a citizen of this great country is the result of a long process that has culminated in today’s special ceremony.”
SIU Africana Studies professor and priest Father Joseph Brown provided the invocation. The candidates were presented to the court on behalf of the Department of Justice by Acting United States Attorney Donald Boyce, who served as a representative of the executive branch. He said his ancestors had come to America from Ireland in the 1840s.
“While today is really important for all of you … there will be people six generations from now who look back on your journey with pride,” Boyce said.
Gilbert led the candidates in the oath of allegiance to the United States, in which the candidates renounced allegiance to any foreign state or sovereignty and swore to support the constitution and laws of the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
After giving the oath, each newly naturalized citizen told the crowd his or her name, country of origin, profession and how long he or she had been in the country.
Corné Prozesky, who came to SIU on an athletic scholarship from South Africa in 1997 and became a citizen in 2010, gave a misty-eyed speech.
“America let us be free. They let us buy a house, let us go on vacation, let us buy a car, they let us be. Now, as United States citizens, we are allowed to take it one step further: America believes that all men and women are created equal,” Prozesky said. “These rights are so sacred that they cannot be given away or sold at any price. Each of us now has the same single vote that the United States president, state governors and senators have on Election Day. You are now equal to every other citizen in the country.
“… We need to take those opportunities and responsibilities and put them to good use. It is true that some Americans may take all these rights, opportunities and responsibilities for granted by not participating in the electoral process or by not being positive, productive citizens. You know what it takes. You sacrificed for it. You dreamt about it, and now you’re living it.”
Gilbert said naturalization ceremonies, which are usually held quarterly or monthly, are his favorite part of being a judge.
“The most touching one I ever did … I got a call a few days before (a ceremony) and there was a lady in her late 70s or early 80s who was on her deathbed, and she couldn’t make it to the ceremony,” Gilbert told The Southern. “She lived in Carlyle, and I did a house call and naturalized her in her bed. She had her children around, grandchildren, red, white and blue — there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including mine. After I congratulated her for becoming an American, she turned to her children and said, ‘I can die now. I’m an American.’ And she died a couple weeks later.”
Hela Nour, of Palestine, said she had been in the U.S. for about three years and was planning to attend to SIU to obtain a master’s degree in agriculture.
“I’m happy because I can stay here with my family, with my husband. I have one son and one daughter. So I’m happy, and I will start to prepare for studying,” Nour said.
Fernanda Sanchez, from Mexico, works in a Mexican restaurant and has been in the country for 11 years. She said she decided to become a citizen for the sake of her children.
“I like the opportunity here,” she said. “There’s a better future. Better school for my kids, better jobs.”
Mounir Ichou, from Morocco, is an information technology specialist for education and health care. He has been in the country since 2006.
“My ties to this country are more than just the land — it’s family, it’s the wife, it’s the kid, it’s my in-laws, it’s work, it’s everybody that surrounds me on a daily basis. It was time to become part of the family for good,” Ichou said.
Asked how he felt about becoming a citizen under a president who has expressed a desire to restrict immigration, Ichou said, “If you vilify people just based on the lowest denomination, then you’re not (better) than the lowest denomination. You have to see good in people, and you will get good out of people. … He’s the president of the United States, so we’re going to deal with it, as United States citizens.”