Northbrook Public Library hosted its first naturalization ceremony on May 9, welcoming 72 new citizens from 29 countries to the United States. Staff from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Chicago Field Office administered the special service.
The cohort of new citizens represented a diverse group of nations, ranging from nearby Canada and Mexico to faraway Jordan, Kenya and Mongolia.
Dr. Thomas Cioppa, district director for USCIS, administered the Oath of Allegiance, whereby new U.S. citizens must renounce fidelity to their former countries and affirm loyalty to the U.S., promising to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces if ever required by law.
“This doesn’t mean you give up your customs, traditions and mores,” explained Cioppa. “We welcome that, because that is what enables America to be what it is.”
Last year, more than 750,000 people were naturalized at ceremonies throughout the country and around the world, including some 28,000 individuals through the USCIS Chicago field office.
North Chicago resident Nancy Brown, 46, an insurance auditor at Allstate’s Northbrook headquarters, sat quietly in the audience, while watching her 61-year-old aunt, Anne Belance, become a U.S. citizen. Brown recounted her aunt’s 16-year journey to that moment, beginning in 2001, when she moved with her two sisters from Haiti to North Chicago in search of economic opportunity.
Tragedy struck in 2002, when Belance’s sisters drowned in a freak accident at the Lincolnshire Marriott Resort, where all three were employed.
Despite her deep loss, Belance remained in the United States and continued working in the resort’s kitchen, preparing fruit and vegetable platters for hotel events.
Citizenship, her niece explained, will allow Belance the freedom to travel between the United States and Haiti and seek citizenship for other family members in search of a better life.
“Now my aunt can begin the necessary paperwork to bring her daughter to the United States,” said Brown.
Twenty-six-year-old Grayslake resident Ril Wan came to the United States from Nigeria in 2001 at age 10 when his father, a physician, began a master’s degree in public health at the University of Illinois-Chicago. This spring, Wan will receive his undergraduate degree in economics from Northern Illinois University. After 16 years living and studying in the United States as a permanent resident, Wan said he felt relieved to finally receive citizenship.
“This is going to make my life a lot easier,” he said. “There have been bumps in the road going all the way going back to high school.”
The USCIS administers two types of naturalization ceremonies: judicial, which are held in courtrooms overseen by judges, and administrative, where proceedings are officiated by USCIS staff at various locations. USCIS often holds special ceremonies to increase public awareness of the U.S. citizenship process.
The Northbrook Public Library ceremony was part of a 2013 partnership between the USCIS and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, whereby the two national organizations provide support to libraries and museums by disseminating public information and hosting events linked to immigration and citizenship.
“We want to reinforce the library as a welcoming place where community is formed,” said Northbrook Public Library Assistant Director Brodie Austin. “Libraries play a critical role in helping immigrants get the information that allows them to be active, engaged citizens.”
After all 72 new citizens had received citizenship certificates, they gathered with loved ones in the library lobby to celebrate with friends and family and pose for photos with Congressman Brad Schneider of the 10th Congressional District of Illinois, who gave the keynote remarks to an audience of approximately 150 attendees gathered in the library’s large auditorium.
Waukegan resident Ricardo Casillas, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico several years ago, attended the ceremony with his wife, Carmen Soto, and their 2-year-old son, Brandon. Casillas, 34, works at Waukegan Tire & Supply Company; Soto teaches at a local daycare center.
Soto, also from Mexico, was naturalized as a child, and son, Brandon, received citizenship at birth, making Casillas the last of his young family to become a U.S. national.
When asked how life in the United States would change with his new citizenship status, Casillas was quick to reply.
“I’m very happy,” he said, smiling broadly. “I can vote now.”