Freedom, tears of joy for 641 new citizens

Providence Journal , RI
March 8 2005

Freedom, tears of joy for 641 new citizens

“God bless America,” says Fania Shpiller, 77, who is among the people
from 71 countries who became naturalized citizens yesterday.

BY KAREN LEE ZINER
Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — Fania Shpiller fled Nazi persecution in Ukraine. Vijay
Shastry left India to pursue higher education. Abdulai Muritala came
here from Nigeria with his soccer club, then married an American
woman.

Shpiller, Shastry and Muritala were among 641 people who took the
oath of allegiance yesterday at Veterans Memorial Auditorium during
one of the largest naturalization ceremonies ever held in Rhode
Island.

The new citizens came from 71 countries — from Antigua and Barbuda,
Bangladesh and Bosnia-Herzegovina, from the Dominican Republic,
Guyana and Laos, to Togo, Turkey, Vietnam and Yugoslavia. Many had
fled war, genocide, enslavement, drought and all manner of
persecution. Some came simply for opportunity.

“I dream to come to America. America is a free land for all people,”
said Shpiller, 77, a Jewish refugee who survived three years in a
Nazi ghetto during World War II.

“I am happy because now I am a citizen of the United States. I hope
all my life [to do this],” she said. Tears welled in Shpiller’s eyes
as she clutched a tiny paper flag. “God bless America,” she said.

Shastry, 37, who left India in 1989 to earn a doctorate in philosophy
at Ohio State University, arrived more than two hours before
yesterday’s 9:30 a.m. ceremony and claimed a front-row seat.

“I’m very excited,” said Shastry. “I think it’s a very big event in
my life — in everybody’s life.”

Maria Centeio, a 95-year-old from Cape Verde who has lived in Rhode
Island for 20 years, wore a green-flowered dress and white pearls.

“She don’t sleep nothing last night. She’s afraid to be late,” said
Centeio’s daughter, Louisa C. Resende of Connecticut. Resende left at
2 a.m. to drive to Providence; she said she had a celebratory cake
waiting.

Magistrate Judge Jacob Hagopian, who swore in the new citizens,
described his own mother’s flight from religious persecution that
necessitated an arduous, four-day trek across the Syrian desert.

“My parents came to escape the Armenian genocide,” said Hagopian.
“They were victims because they were Christian.” Just as his parents
endured hardship and heartbreak in order to survive, said Hagopian,
“I know it hasn’t been an easy journey for many of you.”

Hagopian urged those taking the oath of allegiance yesterday to
perpetuate their own culture. “Pass it on to your children and keep
it alive,” said Hagopian. “You and your culture are America.”

EVEN THE U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service acknowledges that
efficiency has not been its trademark, and that for years, huge
backlogs have delayed people’s efforts to become citizens of this
country.

But that is changing, the government says, and yesterday’s
super-sized naturalization ceremony was attributed to the national
effort to reduce the backlog of applications for immigration
benefits.

Nationwide, the Citizenship and Immigration Service has reduced the
backlog from 3.8 million cases in January 2004 to 1.3 million cases
in January 2005, according to Jeff Trecartin, officer in charge of
the agency’s office in Providence.

In October 2003, a Rhode Island resident who filed an application for
naturalization had to wait more than 17 months for a decision,
Trecartin said; by October 2004, that projected wait had been reduced
to less than 10 months.

The size of yesterday’s ceremony “shows that every day, we are
getting closer to eliminating our backlog of pending applications,”
said Trecartin.

That momentum “will carry us to our goal of processing all
immigration applications in under six months by the end of 2006,”
Trecartin predicted.

According to Trecartin, the ceremony yesterday was eclipsed only by
one last year involving 698 people. Two more in the 600-800 range are
planned for this year. Because of its size, yesterday’s ceremony was
held at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, rather than U.S. District
Court, where such events are usually held.

“This is the best part of immigration — to see people do things
right,” Trecartin said, as he watched the newly naturalized citizens
pose for pictures after swearing their oaths of allegiance.

The fact that 71 countries were represented “tells us that Rhode
Island is a very diverse state,” said Trecartin, “and that people
want to come here from everywhere — people are already here from
everywhere.”

People from the Dominican Republic made up the largest share by far
of the new citizens, with 193 people sworn in from that country.

Dominicans are among the largest Hispanic groups in Rhode Island, and
Hispanics represent the state’s largest minority population.

The next-largest groups yesterday were people from Portugal (78),
Cape Verde (43), and Guatemala (40).

The large numbers of Liberians (22) and Nigerians (17) reflect data
collected by the International Institute of Rhode Island that show
“Africans represent the state’s fastest-growing new populations of
immigrants and refugees.”

The waves of Cambodian, Hmong, Lao and Vietnamese refugees that began
arriving in 1979 and continued to come throughout the 1980s and early
1990s have now diminished.

The institute, which is the state’s largest immigration agency, noted
last summer that there is “a steady increase in numbers of new
refugees and immigrants from the African continent, primarily from
Liberia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and recently
Somalia.”

Vlademar Leite, 36, who lives in Middletown and owns a doughnut shop,
was 9 when he arrived in this country from Portugal. He cited the
right to vote as one of his primary reasons for becoming a citizen.
His wife, Palmira, also became a citizen.

Leite said he wanted insurance against deportation. Though he has
never been in any trouble with the law, “You never know what could
happen.”

Sebastiana Gaboriault, 61, was the only person from Belize to take
the oath yesterday.

Gaboriault said she came to the United States “because I wanted to
get a better life.” She raised two children here before meeting her
husband by answering his wife-wanted ad in the Yankee Swapper.

(“I said, ‘I’m trying to find a man who will take care of me,’ ” she
said. She also pointed out that she is just “a one-man woman.” It
worked.)

As for becoming a citizen, “I feel like, happy in my heart,” she
said.

Albert Gaboriault had plans for the miniature American flag that his
wife and the other participants received.

“We’ll put the flag on the car, on the antenna,” he said. “I feel
happy for her. I’m proud of her. . . . I’ll probably take her out to
dinner.”

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