Representing 33 different countries, 79 people were welcomed as new citizens of the United States at a naturalization ceremony Friday led by the Rockland County Clerk's Office.
The ceremony at Haverstraw Middle School in on Grant Street in Haverstraw included performances by students at the school along with a speech by Martha Robles, executive eirector of Catholic Community Services of Rockland.
The citizens came from countries close to the United States, like Canada and Costa Rica, to ones further away like Australia and Uzbekistan. As in previous ceremonies, Haiti was the most-represented country with 17 of the 77 immigrants coming from that nation. Other popular native countries were Philippines with seven and Dominican Republic with six.
Early in the ceremony, Superintendent of North Rockland Central School District Ileana Eckert, who herself became an American citizen around 30 years ago, noted how fitting it was that the Haverstraw school was chosen as the site for this ceremony.
“Haverstraw Village has been a village and has been a town of immigrants throughout the years, and this has been the place where many immigrant children, many immigrant families, have come and built a great education for those children and those families,” Eckert said at the ceremony. “[…] So I couldn’t think of a more fitting place for you to become an American citizen.”
In fact, because the event was held at the school, select students from each grade level were able to attend the ceremony along with the elected officials and the friends and families of the new citizens. The enthusiastic children cheered loudly as each country represented by the immigrants was announced, and many waved American flags during the patriotic songs at the end of the program.
The students also participated in the ceremony, singing and playing some patriotic music after the citizens took their oath. Carly Walsh, a student at Haverstraw Middle School, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and small student vocal ensembles performed “God Bless America” and “For Just a Little While.” The program then concluded with a garage band of Haverstraw Middle School students called Neon Strings, who performed both “God Bless the USA” and “America.”
Paul Piperato, Rockland County Clerk, noted that these events are held at local schools so that the students can participate while also learning to appreciate their lives as American citizens.
“It’s special to have it at a school because we get to involve the students,” Piperato said right before giving the Oath of Allegiance to the immigrants. “And I want the students to realize how special these ceremonies are, because the people that are about to take the oath took a long road to get to this point, and they chose to become American citizens. Many of you were probably born here, and I’ll admit, most of us that were born here might take it for granted, and coming to these ceremonies you get a renewed vision of what it is to be an American, and it is very special. And I ask, don’t take it for granted. When you grow, get involved in your community.”
Many of the speakers at the ceremony warned the immigrants not to take their citizenship for granted either. In particular the speakers focused on the right to vote and how the new citizens need to register as soon as possible. Representative from the Rockland County Board of Elections were even there handing out and collecting voter registration forms.
One new citizen who eagerly filled out her voter registration form was Christel Parish from Germany. She came to this country when she married her American husband but just now decided to become a United States citizen.
“I just want to be part of the community, be able to vote, able to do my duties as a citizen,” she said.
Howard Phillips Jr., town supervisor for Haverstraw, was one of the speakers who discussed this right that these immigrants now have. He talked about his wife, who came to American from Indonesia when she was around 10 years old.
“They grew to understand what democracy and independence is,” Phillips said of his wife’s family during the ceremony. “They grew to understand that America means that they people decide, not somebody in some far-off building, not some select group of people. But the people. You will learn that if you haven’t yet. You will make the difference. Your children will make the difference, and hopefully they will go on to continue this legacy, this tradition of liberty and freedom, and then they will also come to love these broad stripes and bright stars as much as everyone else does.”
The guest speaker for the ceremony, Martha Robles, also urged the immigrants to take their roles as citizens seriously by voting and serving jury duty when necessary. But she also reminded them of the privileges now afforded to them, like earning scholarships and grants from the government or even obtaining a passport. Still, she reminded them, it’s important that they not forget where they came from.
“I also want to encourage you never to forget who you are because that is what makes us great. We’re here to integrate and to share our cultures, to share our beliefs.”
Another speaker at the event, 11-year-old Lauren Shields, has experienced this sharing of cultures firsthand. Shields was diagnosed with a virus and required a heart transplant. As a result, she spent nine months in the hospital, where she met people of various nationalities.
“Many of my nurses, doctors, and hospital staff were from different countries,” Shields said. “Like you, they came in search of new opportunities. While they took care of me, some shared with me stories about their cultures. I learned a wonderful life lesson in the hospital. I learned that it didn’t matter the size, the color, the age, or the accent of the voice, your friend can be anyone, and I made lots of friends there.”
Sheids was at the ceremony to ask the new citizens to enroll in the New York Organ Donor Network. She had been put on life support before a donor heart for her was found. Her life-saving surgery occurred on March 19, 2009.
“Even though I was born on April 13, I celebrate March 19 as my second birthday, since that was my second chance at life,” she told the new citizens. “I guess for you, today, June 3, can be your second birthday too. It’s the day you became an American.”
The breakdown of the 33 countries represented was as follows:
Country # of citizens
China, People’s Republic 1
Costa Rica 1
Dominican Republic 6
El Salvador 3
South Korea 2
United Kingdom 1