Immigrants become naturalized citizens amid controversies

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - By Elizabeth Vowell – email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) – Saying the Pledge of Allegiance is a familiar routine:  Hand over heart, eyes to the flag, and repeat the words.

But for 24 people in Gulfport, Wednesday was the first day they could say the pledge as an American citizen.

From Bangladesh, to Colombia, to Vietnam, all gathered and took an oath to leave their former countries behind.

"I will support and defend the constitution and the laws of the United States of America… So help me God," they repeated in unison before a federal judge.

"I was very anxious and nervous to get done with it I just wanted it, to achieve that," said naturalized citizen Alexandra Bannister, formerly of Brazil.

To become a naturalized citizen, a person must be a legal permanent resident for five years, go through an extensive application process and pass a 100 question test about U.S. history and civics.

"I'm seeing people I interviewed for their green card status and then I'm seeing those same people and how they've changed and grown and their families have grown, for citizenship. I enjoy all of these," said Immigration Services Officer Kelly Keys.

For many of the new citizens, naturalizing is as much for their families as for themselves.  U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden testified to this at the start of the ceremony.

"I am living proof that what you've done here today, you haven't done just for yourself but for your children and grandchildren and future generations to follow.  Anything is now possible for them in this country," said Ozerden whose father was a naturalized citizen from Turkey.

Once approved, each new citizen receives papers proving their citizenship. As state legislatures prepare to draft a Mississippi version of the controversial Arizona Immigration Bill, those papers could hold even more power for these new citizens.

"If the government passes rules and regulations from the law then I'm obliged to follow the law.  I can't really speculate on what would happen, or how I feel about that," said Keys.

While immigration continues to be a hot button topic throughout the nation, its newest additions say, they are just ready to start their new lives as citizens of the United States.

"Great opportunities from now on," said Bannister. "I'm very proud and happy about this."

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