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‘It’s been a long journey’: 43 immigrants become U.S. citizens in Macon courthouse

‘It seems like I have another home.’ Immigrants become U.S. citizens in Macon

Immigrants became citizens at the William Augustus Bootle Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. A naturalization ceremony was held to officially grant 43 individuals from 21 countries citizenship to the U.S.
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Immigrants became citizens at the William Augustus Bootle Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. A naturalization ceremony was held to officially grant 43 individuals from 21 countries citizenship to the U.S.

Dozens of immigrants streamed into the United States District Court on Mulberry Street Wednesday morning for an event that would forever change their lives.

Just after 11 a.m., 43 individuals from 21 countries held up their right hands and took an oath of citizenship at the courthouse’s annual naturalization ceremony.

Judge Marc T. Treadwell likes to say it’s the one day of the year when he knows everyone will leave the courtroom happy.

“It’s all good news,” he said before the ceremony. “There’s an incredible diversity of nationalities, faiths. But one common denominator is that they have all worked hard to become American citizens the right way.”

The path to citizenship was “rigorous and long” for Estefania Ramirez, a third-year law student at Mercer University. The Colombia native immigrated to the U.S. with her family in 1995, when her father got a job at the University of Pittsburgh.

Ramirez, 28, has a few blurry memories from her early years in Colombia, but she’s felt American for as long as she can remember. Becoming a citizen solidifies the final step, she said.

“It’s been a long journey, but I’m extremely grateful,” Ramirez said. “The process has made me appreciate a lot of things that people don’t normally appreciate.”

Ramirez is excited to vote in the next election and to travel around the world with an American passport. She’s grateful for the rights that come with U.S. citizenship.

When she graduates from law school next month, Ramirez hopes to use those new privileges to give back to the country that’s given her so much.

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JENNA EASON/THE TELEGRAPH Macon, GA, 04/17/2019: Estafania Ramirez, left, claps and cries after finishing the Oath of Allegiance at her naturalization ceremony in the William Augustus Bootle Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Jenna Eason jeason@macon.com

Ramirez believes the legal system that granted her citizenship can change people’s lives for the better. She knows it’s changed hers.

“One of the reasons I wanted to be an attorney was because I realized once my family went through the process of obtaining our Green Card, how impactful the law was,” Ramirez said, adding that applying for citizenship inspired her to practice law. “That has always been my dream – to be able to graduate as an attorney and help those people who are less fortunate.”

As petitioners and their loved ones filled the seats of the courtroom behind her, Ramirez smiled and said she was happy this moment had finally come.

“This is pretty much the best day of my life,” she said.

The American dream come true

Olga Collins said she couldn’t have been happier as she waited to be sworn in as a citizen Wednesday morning. Collins emigrated from Russia in 2010 when she married her American husband.

It took time to adjust to life in Georgia, Collins said, especially before she received a Green Card, which allowed her to work and drive a car. Collins missed her family and friends in Barnaul, the Siberian city where she grew up. And though she’d studied foreign languages in college, Collins struggled to make sense of strangers’ thick southern drawls.

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JENNA EASON/THE TELEGRAPH Macon, GA, 04/17/2019: Olga Collins holds up her Certificate of Naturalization for a photograph after her naturalization ceremony in the William Augustus Bootle Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Jenna Eason jeason@macon.com

With time, she said, the U.S. started to feel more like home. Collins earned another degree, worked her way up to a legal assistant’s position at a Macon law firm and recently applied to law school. She and her husband also gave birth to a daughter, who is proud of both her American and Russian heritages, Collins said.

Collins knows a part of her will always be tied to her motherland.

“I am still Russian in my heart and soul. I have my family there and all my connections and friends, and I’ll never forget the language,” she said.

But Collins is thrilled to finally become a U.S. citizen, after years of paperwork, studying and application fees. Her life feels like the American dream come true, she said.

“It’s a big honor,” Collins said. “My husband is an American, my daughter is an American, so now I am going to be an American citizen.”

A moment years in the making

Shortly before 11 a.m., Fareed Bhanji reflected on his 14-year path to U.S. citizenship, a journey that began in 2005, when he left India and moved to Atlanta without a friend or a plan.

It had been a bumpy ride, Bhanji said, but he’d made it. The Indian immigrant is focused on his future in the country where he and his wife will raise their 13-month-old daughter.

“There’s nothing not to like over here,” Bhanji said. “Everything is easier over here. There is opportunity door to door. You just have to knock and get in there.”

Bhanji’s brown eyes glowed throughout the 30-minute ceremony. Standing in the front row, he recited the oath of citizenship and pledge of allegiance with fervor, smiling wide when the judge declared him a citizen.

As the room erupted in applause, friends and family snapped photos on their cellphones and several of the new Americans wiped away tears.

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JENNA EASON/THE TELEGRAPH Macon, GA, 04/17/2019: Fern Bain, right, holds up her Certificate of Naturalization for a photograph after her naturalization ceremony in the William Augustus Bootle Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Jenna Eason jeason@macon.com

Fern Bain of the Philippines held in her emotions at the beginning of the ceremony. But when she took the oath of citizenship, tears welled in her eyes.

“I can’t explain the feeling,” said Bain, who waited 17 years to become a citizen. “It seems like I have another home.”

If you want to learn more about the federal immigration process, visit https://www.uscis.gov/about-us/what-we-do.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. She joined The Telegraph in June of 2018 and reports on the health of the community. Samantha graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2018. As an undergraduate student, she interned for the Medill Justice Project, Hoy (Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language publication) and NPR-affiliate station WYPR in her hometown of Baltimore. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.
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