Sandra Cardoso Lopes wore a black dress and red and blue bead necklaces around her neck and wrist Friday morning as she led 24 other newly naturalized American citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance.
After living in the United States for nearly 11 years, Lopes said she’s always felt like a welcome guest.
“Today, it’s the moment like I finally feel like I’m not just a guest, I’m a part of this country,” Lopes, who is originally from Brazil, said with a wide smile. “We always felt good here, but now, I’ll be able to participate, and it means a lot to me.”
So can the 7,000 other people who will become United States citizens during this holiday weekend.
People from 19 countries, including Mexico, Kenya, India and France, took the United States Oath of Allegiance at the Levine Museum of the New South on Friday.
The naturalization ceremony comes as immigration has been an increasingly hot international topic. Last month, the Supreme Court handed President Barack Obama a significant legal defeat, refusing to revive his stalled plan to shield from deportation millions of immigrants in this country without legal permission. And Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has called for tougher restrictions on immigration, including a ban on Muslims from countries with heavy terrorist activity.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Charlotte Field Office holds naturalization ceremonies regularly for people who have recently completed the requirements for citizenship. These are usually held at the Department of Homeland Security, but the Levine Museum has hosted six, and the Charlotte Museum of History will hold one Monday.
In the last decade, an average of 700,000 people each year became naturalized United States citizens, according to statistics from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
In 2013, 31.9 percent of immigrants in North Carolina were citizens, according to census data. In 2012, 5.6 percent of all registered voters in North Carolina were naturalized citizens or children of immigrants born in the U.S. Charlotte was recognized in a White House ceremony Thursday for a policy that allows immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, to serve on local boards and commissions.
Prospective United States citizens must fill out an application, complete an interview and pass a citizenship test that includes questions such as “What did the Declaration of Independence do?” and “When do we celebrate Independence Day?”
Gaining citizenship also comes with a $595 application fee, and the process requires applicants from all over western North Carolina to drive to Charlotte or Greenville, S.C., for fingerprinting, interviews and ceremonies.
Another new citizen, Gillian Bosonetto, said the process was quick, but she could see how the fee and taking a day off work to travel could be a roadblock for some people.
Still, national statistics report a rise in citizenship applications – more than 185,000 were submitted in the last three months of 2015, up 14 percent from 2014, and up 8 percent compared with the end of 2011, before the 2012 elections. Some believe this is due to Trump’s candidacy and proposals to crack down on immigration.
Beth Springston attends naturalization ceremonies as a member of the League of Women Voters of Charlotte-Mecklenburg and helps new citizens register to vote on the spot. She said usually about half of them come to her table to register right after the ceremony.
Springston also volunteers at the International House, where she helps prospective citizens prepare for their test and interview. She said voting is the main reason immigrants want to become citizens.
“This year is an important election year, so I’m happy to be able to participate in the elections and maybe take some responsibility to keep the country great,” said Bosonetto, who initially came to the United States as a refugee from Botswana in the 1980s, during the apartheid era. “I hope that what’s available to me and the opportunities it’s given me and my family isn’t taken away from other people.”
Rachel Herzog: 704-358-5358; @rachel_herzog