SALT LAKE CITY — Mohamed Sesay immigrated from Liberia to the United States ten years ago in order to achieve the better life he dreamed of as a young man. On Sept. 17 he became an American.
Sesay is one of 150 candidates who officially became U.S. citizens during the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony held Wednesday morning at This Is the Place Heritage Park. The ceremony was part of USCIS’s annual celebration of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. From Sept. 17 to Sept. 23., more than 27,000 people will become U.S. citizens in more than 160 ceremonies nationwide.
The occasion was particularly special for Sesay because he wanted to be an American even before he came to the U.S.
“Today my heart is broken, but I am very happy,” he said.
The ceremony began with the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by a Riverton High School choir, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.
Frances Merrill, of the Daughters of the American Revolution, provided special remarks in which she emphasized becoming an informed citizen.
“Make an informed vote,” Merrill said. “You must be involved to make America strong.”
Merrill, whose brother is United States Senator Orrin Hatch, ended her thoughts by reminding the newly-naturalized Americans that “freedom is not free.” Merrill’s late husband served in the U.S. Marines during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
U.S. District Judge David Sam, District of Utah, presided over the event’s legal proceedings. The culmination of the ceremony was the Oath of Allegiance taken by each citizen candidate. The oath entails renouncing fidelity to any foreign nation, support for the U.S. Constitution and a commitment to bear arms for the U.S. if required by law. After the final words of the oath, Sam welcomed the participants as the newest American citizens and opened up the floor to anyone who wanted to share their thoughts.
Many became emotional as they spoke, and almost every new citizen ended with the words “God bless America.”
In appreciation to his fellow Americans, one newly naturalized American citizen from Tonga said, “I love you guys.”
In one of the morning’s lighter moments, Sam politely interjected during the candidates’ remarks to give his own appreciation for a few of the countries from which the candidates came — specifically the Pacific Islands.
“Thank you for sending your football players,” Sam said jokingly on behalf of BYU, the University of Utah and other schools in the state. The entire audience erupted in laughter and loud applause.
There was a familial atmosphere present at the ceremony. It was evident from the words exchanged and tears shed that many in attendance were touched by the occasion. Current and new citizens alike expressed their pride in being Americans.
Some highlights of the candidates’ remarks include:
— A woman from Iran who became emotional as she expressed gratitude for the U.S. She said she came here to escape religious persecution and provide a chance for her children to have a better education.
— A refugee who most recently lived in Nepal said becoming an American has changed his life. “The world is a dark place, but right now I see it bright.”
— A man from Mexico who has been in the U.S. for 11 years grew up on a farm in Mexico but is now a student at the University of Utah.
— A man from Bosnia who has been in the U.S. for 16 years said he admires the U.S. for its religious tolerance and that if one is confident and works hard, one can “make it in America.”
This year’s Constitution Day and Citizenship Day coincided with the beginning of Hispanic Heritage month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Many of Wednesday’s participants were Hispanic, coming from countries such as Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador, among others.
Juan Carlos Ocampo, originally from Mexico, was in a patriotic mood, wearing an American flag in his shirt pocket.
“I should have done this 14 years ago, but I kept putting it off,” Ocampo said.
For him and others, becoming a U.S. citizen creates more opportunities for better work and a better life.
The USCIS asked that families and friends share the experience via Twitter using the hashtag #newUScitizen. The hashtag trended nationally on Twitter Wednesday as many shared their thoughts online:
— Amy She (佘凡) (@famyshe) September 17, 2014
— Breazy (@TheRedGrrl) September 13, 2014
No matter the journey, the new American citizens seemed eager to truly become part of their new nation.
Standing with his family at his side, Sesay said he was humbled by the accomplishment of finally being an American and is excited about his family’s future in this country.
“Now he will have the same thing you had and the same thing that I wanted to have — to grow up in America,” Sesay said as he pointed to his grandson.
Constitution Day and Citizenship Day is commemorated every Sept. 17 in honor of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. In 1952, President Harry Truman signed a bill formalizing the celebration of Citizenship Day. In 2004, Congress established Sept. 17 as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.