In the middle of a field at Hansen Dam, packed with helicopters from different law enforcement agencies, 30 children from ages 4 to 17 became United States citizens.
The setting was the American Heroes Airshow on Saturday, June 20, as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) held the first open-air naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles.
“I feel really cool,” said a visibly excited Aaron Navarrete,14, who arrived from his native Mexico when he was eight.
The Triumph High School student spent six years undocumented before becoming a permanent resident, and was one of the minors taking the oath of allegiance to his new country.
“I think this is going to open a lot of doors for me. I’m going to have access to schools and become somebody one day,” added Navarrete, a Sylmar resident. He was joined by his parents, Maria and Jose, who had to become U.S. citizens themselves before they could seek the same benefit for their son.
In fact, the “real heroes” in this process are the parents, noted Susan Curda, USCIS district director.
“They made a tremendous journey, going through things in some cases we can’t even imagine, to get you here today. All because they wanted to give you better opportunities and a future,” she told the youngsters as each of them raised their right hand to take the oath of allegiance.
Unlike adults, who are thoroughly questioned and have their records checked after they apply for naturalization before meeting with an immigration officer who asks them questions about the history and politics of the United States, all parents have to do for citizenship for their sons and daughters is apply.
The process is much faster, often being completed in a few months.
Aaron’s parents said the process took less than three months for their son to receive permanent residency. They said they decided to become U.S. citizens so that he could also become one.
“We feel very happy. He is going to have better opportunities now,” Maria said.
In total, there were people representing 11 different countries in the ceremony: Bangladesh, Cuba, Ghana, Guatemala, Iran, Mexico, the Philippines, Syria, United Kingdom, Vietnam and Yemen.
A Fitting Step
James Paules, the Airshow’s producer, said they’ve previously had a booth with USCIS representatives for the event, and considered this ceremony “the next and fitting step” to educate the community about the importance of becoming U.S. citizens.
“What better way for them to spend their first day as U.S. citizens than surrounded by real American heroes,” Paules said, in describing the rescue helicopter pilots and others.
For some of the families taking part in the ceremony, this was the culmination of a dream that had seemed impossible.
There was a Cuban family that endured tremendous hardships just to get into this country. Two of their children, ages 8 and 14, gained citizenship.
But their journey had started more than a decade ago when their father, a member of the political opposition in the Caribbean island, applied for a U.S. visa through the Political Refugees Program.
“My life and that of my family was in danger,” recounted the father, who asked that his name not be revealed.
Applying for the program only exacerbated the situation.
“When the [Cuban] government learns that you have applied for the program, there’s more scrutiny, vigilance of you. They follow you everywhere,” said the man, who said he tried to unsuccessfully to escape the island once through illegal ways.
He would spend a year in a Cuban jail. “It’s a horrible episode I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” he said.
His U.S. visa was finally granted, and he finally arrived in Miami in 2009, before joining a sister in Los Angeles. The parents became U.S. citizens last year.
“For us, becoming U.S citizens is very important,” the man said.
Birmingham High Student Takes Oath
It was also important for Jose Luis Farias to have his son, Ivan, 16, became a citizen.
“Now he has to put in the effort so he can make the most of the opportunities here,” his said.
Ivan is an avid lacrosse and soccer player at Birmingham High School. He said he is up to his father’s challenge, and no longer felt anything could stop him.
“I’m going to be able to go anywhere else around the world,” Ivan said.
Others want to strengthen and affirm their ties to the country they’ve adopted as their own.
“Laws can change at any moment and one has to feel secure, happy and free. If we’re following the law, why not have the same rights as other people?” said Maria Alfaro, who came from Ventura to join her daughter Lesley, 15, in the ceremony.