Manisha Mathur spent the day before her naturalization ceremony calling her friends and her mother, who lives in their hometown of Rajasthan, India, to quiz them on what she should wear to an event 15 years in the making. She settled on a black sari, a garment worn by women across South Asia, with a colorful and delicate pattern of tiny flowers.
Although Mathur, 41, of Bothell, attended the ceremony without her two U.S.-born daughters or her husband, who is still waiting to become a U.S. citizen, her excitement still bubbled over.
“I didn’t even have breakfast because I was so excited,” she said.
Mathur was among 60 immigrants from 25 countries who took an oath of allegiance to the United States Friday at the 36th naturalization ceremony at Fisher Pavilion at the Seattle Center. The pandemic-era version of the event occurred even as President Joe Biden’s administration seeks to overhaul immigration policy.
Several state leaders congratulated the new citizens, including Gov. Jay Inslee, who sent a letter to Congress on Friday seeking comprehensive immigration reform.
“The United States is meant to be a welcoming nation, built on the promise of opportunity. Yet we offer no chance of permanency for so many who we call friends, neighbors, and coworkers,” he wrote. “We deny this, all the while reaping the benefits of their contributions to our economy, our tax revenues, our culture, and our well-being.”
The ceremony began with the national anthem, sung by Maria Kesovija in a traditional Croatian dress as her daughter and her mother, Alma Plancich, a Croatian immigrant, watched from the audience.
The pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s ceremony. This year’s event had been in the planning stages since November, said Plancich, who serves as the ceremony’s project manager.
“There was one year that we welcomed 865 people to this country,” Plancich said. “But because of COVID, we’re down to 60 people we’re celebrating and it was too late to change that even though the state has reopened.”
Seats were spaced 6 feet apart and family members waited for their loved ones on the other side of a fence. Weitong Huang, 40, originally from Taipei City, the capital of Taiwan, sat at the edge of the fence near the designated family area.
During the ceremony, Huang’s two small children ran to the fence and stopped in front of their father, pointing their fingers and giggling. As they ran back to their mother, he pointed a finger back at them.
Huang said he was so ecstatic to finally receive citizenship that he woke up at 6 a.m. to get ready, despite living in Redmond.
“It’s taken a lot to get here since I arrived back in 2006,” he said. “Now I can celebrate.”
Near the beginning of the ceremony, Anne Corsano, district director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, explained that everyone was standing on Duwamish and Coast Salish peoples’ land. She also shared a recorded message from Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.
“You are all the face of America,” Durkan said. “There are immigrants and refugees who are teaching our children, caring for our sick, and thinking, ‘how can I make my community better?”
Storyteller Gene Tagaban shared the tale of Raven and the spirit animals, while Peter Ali played the flute and Swil Kanim played the violin.
“I encourage each and every one of you as new citizens: keep your heritage, your language so we truly have a diverse land and that we do tell the truth of the history,” Tagaban said.
Kanim told of the plight of Indigenous people who were not recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924, and also of the dreams of his ancestors.
“We are all of our stories, told and untold,” he said. “We’re every single one of our victories no matter how small; the recognition and acknowledgment of that is transformational.”
Several speakers shared their ties to immigration, including Ricardo Martinez, chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, who led the oath.
Martinez’s father left Mexico 75 years ago, knowing no English and without the opportunity to attend school, he said.
“He left his homeland, his extended family for the same reason so many of you have come: the chance for a better life for you and your children,” Martinez said.
Martinez’s father applied for U.S. citizenship 22 years ago.
“I remember looking back at it him and saying, ‘Dad, why, after more than 50 years of living here in the United States, why now?’ He looked back at me and said, ‘Because this country has been so good to me and my children, and I want to be able to vote.’ So he did.”
The pathway to citizenship can be as difficult as it is unpredictable. Many have waited decades to have a seat at a naturalization ceremony and swear an oath as an U.S. citizen. For others it may take just months, as was the case with Janelle Springer, from Tunapuna, Trinidad.
Springer, 30, arrived in New York City in 2014 and was hit with a wave of culture shock, she said. The climate and the people were so different from what she knew, but she grew to love it, she said.
“Every culture is here and it’s a beautiful thing to see,” Springer said. “I’ve met people and had conversations that I didn’t think I’d ever have.”
Although it took Springer four years to receive her residency, her citizenship application was approved within months, she said. She thinks her service in the National Guard might have helped expedite her process.
“America been good to me,” said Springer, who now lives in Redmond. “All I want to do is give back to the place that has given me so much.”