As a fog bank hovered over the California State Monterey Bay campus on Monday, 150 immigrants from 19 nations took part in a naturalization ceremony at the university’s ballroom in Seaside.
In the room’s front rows sat eager participants, all carrying little American flags that had been distributed to them by the event organizers while behind them sat the spectators–family members, loved ones, friends–who came to show their support.
The ceremony started with a moving rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, followed by the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. Then everyone in the room stood up, turned to the flag at the front of the stage and recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
At one point in the ceremony, applicants were asked to stand up and wave the U.S. flag when their country of origin was called. There were people from Argentina, Canada, People’s Republic of China, El Salvador, Germany, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Nicaragua and the Philippines.
The Independence Day themed ceremony is a tradition started by former congressman Sam Farr. This year, the junior congressman for the 20th district, Jimmy Panetta provided the keynote address, one that inspired and touched upon his own family’s immigrant background.
“Being born here I will never fully comprehend what you’ve been through to sit in those seats today. But I do believe I have a sense, based on my family’s history,” he said. “I am the grandson of immigrants. My grandfather came here in 1921 on a ship from Naples. He crossed the Atlantic and into the open arms of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.”
During a recent family trip to the national monument that at one time served as the busiest immigration center in the U.S., processing more than 12 million immigrants from 1892 to 1954, Panetta saw the ship ledger that his grandfather signed.
With just five dollars to his name, Panetta’s grandfather travelled across the sea in steerage class with 1800 individuals, all seeking a better life in America. His occupation was listed as peasant.
“But despite his lack of money, his lack of title, he made his way across the country, working in the gold mines of Wyoming,” said Panetta, whose grandfather ended up on the Central Coast where he would later run a restaurant in Monterey during the war years and raise a family among other immigrants in a place colloquially known as “Spaghetti Hill.”
The ceremony was a touching reminder of why people decide to leave home to start a new life in a new land.
“We have seen a big increase in people seeking citizenship and we are so happy to do whatever we can. The application is very intimidating and the cost is very extreme, but people are still willing to make that sacrifice,” said Doug Keegan, executive director of the Santa Cruz Immigration Project after the ceremony.
The process to go from legal permanent resident to citizen takes about six months, explained Keegan. The current application cost is $725, but a fee waiver is available, he said. The immigration project, based in Watsonville, can help with both the application and fee waiver.
“Citizenship isn’t necessary to be employed, to be present here in the United States, but it really gives a higher level of security and stability to people’s lives and I think they really want the right to vote and to be fully participating in our democracy. I think they also want to be able to protect their families and to be an example to their families,” said Keegan.