U.S. Marine Sgt. Jovany Rolon sat in the front row of a Montebello country club ballroom Thursday in his dress uniform, fidgeting with his little plastic American flag.
Minutes later, the Guadalajara-born 22-year-old took an oath and became a citizen of the country he served during recent military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If I would've stayed in Mexico, I wouldn't be who I am today, so I wanted to give something back," Rolon said. "I'm nervous.... I feel great, and it will free up the process for my wife."
Rolon was one of 27 U.S. service personnel who became citizens in three naturalization ceremonies Thursday, part of 50 held across the country this week. They are the first naturalization ceremonies run by the new Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security.
Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson was on hand to address the new citizens at one of the ceremonies at the Quiet Cannon Country Club, where 2,728 new citizens were sworn in Thursday. Hutchinson took special note of those who served in the war in Iraq without fully being citizens of the United States.
"The fact that some of those died for a country that wasn't their country is extraordinary, and today we honor them," Hutchinson said. "This is a tremendous way to start our Independence Day celebrations."
The new citizens were sworn in by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Abrams, who told the new Americans that they were joining a sacred covenant with the Founding Fathers, and urged them to actively promote the ideals the United States stands for.
"We owe it to those who lost their lives two years ago," Abrams said, reminding the new citizens of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
And once they intoned "So help me God," the rows of people raised their flags and hooted. "God bless America!" shouted a Marine sitting in the front row, to even louder cheers.
The newly naturalized citizens came from more than 80 countries, including Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Iraq.
"It's a lovely feeling. You feel like you want to protect your new country. You get goose bumps," said Margot Robertson, 32, formerly a citizen of Honduras.
Elsewhere, as people stood in line for to take their passport pictures, many new citizens were already talking about new plans.
"I want to get in touch with the government and see if they need my services, anything in intelligence," said Francis Okpan, 34, formerly of Nigeria. "The government here appreciates human lives and talent."
"I got my citizenship now," Rolon, the Marine, said after the ceremony. "It feels pretty good. I've been waiting for this for a long time."