When Oscar Vanegas Gonzalez got his U.S. citizenship today at a ceremony hosted by President Barack Obama, the accomplishment reflected the complexities of U.S. immigration policy.
While the Obama administration is now working to stop Central American kids from sneaking into the U.S. without papers or their parents, that’s how Gonzalez, now 27, arrived in the U.S. after leaving Guatemala at 16.
In the years that followed, he was embraced by a foster family, obtained residency status, and became fluent in English. He graduated from high school, learned electrical wiring and, last year, joined the Marines -- a move that expedited his citizenship.
Gonzalez is one of 25 current or former servicemembers, or spouses, from 15 countries who became citizens at the White House today in an Independence Day event Obama has hosted every year of his presidency except 2011.
“It’s a very sensitive subject for me -- I wish I had the right words to explain how I feel,” Gonzalez said in an interview before the ceremony. “We are not all bad,” he said of undocumented immigrants. “I was given a chance to be who I am now. I’m thankful for everything.”
That thousands of immigrants are eager to serve has been welcomed by a president grappling with Republican lawmakers unwilling to vote for legislation resolving the status of 11 million undocumented residents in the U.S.
About 5,000 non-citizens enlist in the U.S. military each year, said Navy Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman. There are now about 25,000 such service members in active duty, guard and reserve roles from infantry to aviation, logistics, health care and linguistics.
The U.S. has naturalized 93,089 members of the military from September of 2002 through this May, as well as thousands of spouses and children, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Under an executive order signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, noncitizens serving honorably on or after the Sept. 11 attacks can naturalize after basic training.
Obama also is using today’s event as an opportunity to call for Congress to pass immigration legislation -- an effort that Republican lawmakers have said won’t go forward this year. Today’s ceremony also honored Jose Andres, a Spanish-born celebrity chef who became a U.S. citizen last December.
“If we want to keep attracting the best and the brightest from beyond our borders, we’re going to have to fix our immigration system,” Obama said at the event today. “We shouldn’t be making it harder for the best and brightest to come here and create jobs that can grow our economy. We should be making it easier.”
“This country has given me so much and I wanted to give back,” said Reverlie Thomas, 35, who joined the Navy in April 2013 and also became a citizen at today’s ceremony.
She and her twin sister came to the U.S. from Trinidad at 14 to see relatives and stayed without authorization, she said. For her, that meant low-wage jobs and living on the margins while being married to another undocumented resident and raising a child. Marrying for a second time, this time to a U.S. citizen, she became a resident. Then, at 34, she joined the Navy. She said she’s also finishing a degree in nursing.
“Obama has really tried for immigration reform, but they still have a long ways to go,” she said. “It won’t be solved in eight years but hopefully more is done for immigrants. Most of them really are hard-working people who pay taxes.”
Kamar Osei Harris, 23, born in Canada to parents from Jamaica and Barbados, came to the U.S. in 2006 and joined the U.S. Air Force last October.
“I wanted to make my family proud,” he said of his choice. “I want to be successful in life and have a skill.”
Harris said he’s glad the war Afghanistan is ending and that Obama is seeking to wind down an era of U.S. combat.
“At the same time, these things repeat,” Harris said. “Hopefully, I’m wrong, but the way I see it, it may be dying down, but sooner or later we will probably be back.”
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