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In Defending Liberty, They Secure Freedom

More than 200 immigrant sailors from 51 countries become American citizens. Their courage expedited ceremony.

August 09, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

NORFOLK, Va. — It took a war and a stint in the Navy to do it, but Vern Rodriguez's long journey from Belize ended Friday when he and 221 sailors from 51 countries were sworn in as U.S. citizens on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt.

"This is like starting my life from scratch," said Rodriguez, 23, the first member of his Los Angeles family to become an American. "Words can't explain the happiness I feel. I'll thank God every day for this."

Some of the sailors were assigned to the Roosevelt, the only carrier that took part in both recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others have served on a variety of naval vessels and had been chosen to join the ceremony on the Roosevelt as part of an expedited naturalization process.

The 222 sailors were beneficiaries of President Bush's executive order in July 2002 that waived the waiting period for citizenship applications for service personnel. Upward of 10,000 members of the military are expected to become citizens as a result. Other presidents have issued similar decrees in past wars.

"If you'd told me 10 years ago this would be happening today, never in my wildest dreams would I have believed it," said Jian Di Liu, 23, of China. "I woke up this morning Chinese and now I am American. Why did I want U.S. citizenship? More freedom is No. 1. There is so much more freedom in the United States."

Around Liu, in a hangar bay cleared of its 70 combat aircraft, was the face of America, one of many colors, religions and ethnic backgrounds. To her left was a sailor from Hungary, to her right one from Ecuador. There were others from Russia, Vietnam, Nigeria, Romania, Britain, Ukraine. In all, more than a quarter of the world's countries were represented at the hourlong ceremony.

"I think everyone will tell you we came to the United States for the same thing -- the American dream: freedom and opportunity," said Francois Ba, 31, who left Senegal in 1998. "But what people back home don't realize is that just coming here doesn't make you rich or successful. This is no free ride. You have to work hard. You have to contribute, especially as a newcomer."

Immigrants have served in the U.S. military since before the Civil War, and today, together with naturalized citizens, make up about 5% of the armed forces. Two of the first Marines killed in Iraq were immigrants, one from Mexico, the other from Guatemala. Since 1907, nearly 700,000 immigrants have used the military as a path to citizenship.

As the sailors milled about in the cavernous hangar bay, filling out the last of their paperwork before the ceremony and receiving small American flags, some said they were struck by the paradox that, at a time when America seems to have so many enemies, the U.S. remains the destination of choice for so much of the world. More than 1.4 million people have become naturalized U.S. citizens since 2001.

"If my friends at home had the same opportunity to come to America I did, I think 80% would take it," said Ann Mwai, 22, of Kenya.

"America's not perfect," said Henry Villanueva, 23, of the Philippines, "but there is the freedom to choose. The people who don't like America, I don't want to call them fools, but they are naive. If they understood America, they would not hate it."

Their paperwork done, the immigrant sailors filed into 13 rows of folding chairs placed in front of a towering American flag.

An honor guard presented the colors. A Navy band played "America, the Beautiful." About 80 family members looked on proudly.

"Do you believe this is happening?" Nilkalys Moilna, 21, of the Dominican Republic whispered to a friend.

Bush told the sailors in a video address that the gifts and values each brought to the country, and their courage in defending the United States in war, made them "as American as the most direct descendants of our Founding Fathers."

And Capt. Johnny Green, commander of the Theodore Roosevelt, which returned in May from five months of combat support off Iraq, reminded them of words spoken by the president for whom the carrier is named:

"We are all of us Americans and nothing else.... A wrong to any of us is a wrong to all of us."

The oath of allegiance, in which the sailors renounced allegiance to all foreign states and pledged to defend the U.S. Constitution against any domestic or foreign enemy, was administered by Eduardo Aguirre, director of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Aguirre arrived in the United States 33 years ago as a penniless teenage refugee from Cuba.

He asked each sailor to stand when the name of his or her native country was called. One stood from Albania, three from Barbados, two from Ethiopia, six from Guyana, one each from Iran, Israel and Grenada, 12 from Peru, four from Liberia, two from Cuba, until finally there was a sea of shoulder-to-shoulder white dress uniforms, and Aguirre said, to cheers, applause and hugs:

"Congratulations! You are new Americans."

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