Eagle River naturalization ceremony welcomes new U.S. citizens
Fifty-four Alaskans became American citizens in the Eagle River High School gym Friday, surrounded by proud family and friends and more than 200 cheering ERHS government students.
Many waited years for the occasion, they said.
“We are a nation mostly of immigrants,” retired Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sen Tan said to those gathered in the school gym Friday. “I want to say in clearest terms: You are welcome.”
The Sept. 22 naturalization ceremony marked the last day of Constitution Week, during which more than 30,000 lawful permanent residents became U.S. citizens at more than 200 naturalization ceremonies nationwide, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The Eagle River ceremony began a few minutes after noon, but people started gathering in the gym more than an hour beforehand. Men wore suits; women, heels and blouses. Family members snapped photographs on cell phones while the future American citizens lined up to turn in their green cards.
“This is a big deal,” said Eagle River resident Meleci Gonzalez, who came early to support a friend. “I feel like we as citizens take it for granted.”
American flags decorated the gym for the occasion. A giant flag hung on the wall, reaching halfway from floor to ceiling. Dozens of people waved tiny American flags. Some wore American flag t-shirts and ties and pins. A volunteer from the group Daughters of the American Revolution drove out from Anchorage to distribute pamphlets containing the U.S. Flag Code.
Friday’s new citizens came from nearly two dozen countries, from the Phillipines to Western Samoa to Peru, according to district court administrators. Anchorage resident Lu San Aung said she came to celebrate the day with a friend from Burma.
“Maybe next year it will be us,” she said.
The afternoon ceremony included a presentation of the colors by the ERHS Air Force JROTC Color Guard, a performance of the National Anthem by the school choir, an address by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline, a speech by retired Judge Sen Tan and brief remarks by ERHS Principal Marty Lang.
“I want to say welcome and congratulations,” said Lang, addressing the dozens of new Americans seated before him in the gym. “It’s a pleasure to be part of this day with you.”
Some of the people who became citizens Sept. 22 have lived and worked in the United States for decades, they said. Tan, the ceremony’s guest speaker, spoke about his own experience coming to the U.S. from Malaysia. He became a U.S. citizen in 1986 and went on to serve nearly two decades with the state superior court.
“I share my story with you because each of you have a story,” Tan said.
The judge spoke about the value of diversity and America’s immigrants. He urged the new citizens to fulfill their civic duties, to participate in the public process and to help make their country kind and good. Then they all stood, raised their right hands and recited the Oath of Allegiance.
After each new citizen crossed the gym floor to receive their naturalization certificates, they introduced themselves to the crowd and the students in the bleachers exploded into applause.
“I am proud to call myself Albanian, Alaskan and now – American!” said Shqiponja Delolli, waving her American flag at the crowd.
Her legs were shaking, she said. She couldn’t stop smiling. The students cheered.
Holding his two young sons and his iPhone, Eagle River resident Nathan McAlister navigated closer to the podium to get a better view of his wife, Sheyla, who was becoming a citizen after first coming to the United States as a child, he said.
Before McAlister was transferred to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson earlier this year, his family lived in Las Vegas, where his wife faced a year-long waitlist for citizenship, he said. In Anchorage, the process was surprisingly smooth and took only a few months, McAlister said. They’d joked about it in the car on the way to the school Friday morning, he said.
“If you want to get your citizenship, come to Alaska,” McAlister said, grinning.
After the ceremony, the McAlisters joined the throng around the stage, where families posed for photographs with Judge Beistline, their naturalization certificates and their American flags. Sheyla McAlister held her son and smiled for the cameras in front of a backdrop of red, white and blue. Guatemalan by birth, she said, she became American by choice.
“I’m just really happy,” she said. “I’ve waited a really long time.”
Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected]