Between flags and tears, 200 New Yorkers acquired American nationality on Saturday during an exceptional naturalization ceremony organized on Ellis Island, the famous island which, every day, once welcomed thousands of immigrants.
Applicants for naturalization from some 60 countries gathered in the great hall of the former immigrant reception center, from where some 12 million people entered the United States during six decades at the beginning of the 20th century.
The ceremony, the first of its kind on the island since 2016, marks the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787 and kicked off “Citizenship Week” which takes place every year.
The 200 new US citizens are among 19,000 who will be sworn in across the country this week, according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Service.
As the sun’s rays break through towering arched windows, the emotion is palpable across the room as the cohort takes the oath of allegiance to the United States, less than a mile from the Statue of Liberty .
Attorney General Merrick Garland, who is presiding over the ceremony, emphasizes to new American citizens: “This country – your country – welcomes you with all its heart.”
Mr. Garland blinks back tears as he recounts his own parents’ flight from religious persecution in Eastern Europe, adding that two of his grandmother’s siblings died in the Holocaust.
“I often think about how my family members felt when they entered buildings like this,” he says. “And I often reflect on what their decisions have meant for my own life.”
Ahead of the ceremony, Lovell Brown, 31, from Jamaica, told AFP she was looking forward to visiting the island for the first time and for “such a great time”.
“I really feel like I’m really part of the United States now,” observes the teacher who arrived in the country at 17.
“It makes me feel like I belong here.”
– Quarrels over immigration –
The ceremony takes place while in the United States, the arrival of undocumented migrants maintains an atmosphere of increasingly politicized controversy.
A few days earlier, some 50 migrants arrived unexpectedly at Martha’s Vineyard, an upscale Massachusetts resort island where Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had sent them in a very political maneuver.
Right-wing US governors have bussed and now flown migrants to largely Democratic cities to decry President Joe Biden’s immigration policy, which they say is responsible for the arrival of large numbers of undocumented migrants across the Mexican border.
On Thursday morning, Republican Governor of Texas Greg Abbott sent two buses carrying migrants not far from the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, a location deliberately chosen, with Ms Harris overseeing the immigration issue at the House White.
“Overcoming the current polarization of our public life is, and will continue to be, a difficult task,” said Mr. Garland during the ceremony at Ellis Island. “But we can’t overcome it by ignoring it.”
According to the latest report from the Department of Homeland Security, 814,000 people obtained American citizenship in 2021, or 30% more than in 2020, when the Covid-19 epidemic had paralyzed most of public life.
– “I found my home” –
Umaru Kabir Ahmed, 63, originally from Nigeria, has lived in the United States since 1989.
This Bronx resident, who works in a retirement home, says he first applied for naturalization in 2012.
“I’m happy,” he says, explaining that his new papers reflect the American sensibility he’s cultivated over the past three decades.
“A lot of things have changed: the way I speak, the way I eat, the way I sleep, the way I dress.”
The ancestors of some 40% of today’s Americans passed through Ellis Island, which opened in 1892 and which today houses a museum.
At its height in the early 20th century, thousands of people passed through it daily, waiting in long queues for medical and legal examinations that sometimes resulted in family separation or deportation.
The symbol of this place has not escaped Warren Lawson, 44, in the United States since 2016, happy to be on the island to “learn history and see it for himself”.
Acquiring nationality was necessary for him because “it’s probably where my children will live for the rest of their lives and I want to grow old in the same place as them.”
“I have found my home.”