Becoming American – just in time for the 4th

Record numbers of naturalization applications sparked by 9/11 are now producing happy citizens.

Lliana and Ricardo Valbuena's applications for naturalization would have been in the mail on the afternoon of Sept. 11, if the post offices hadn't closed unexpectedly.

The couple from Venezuela was so affected by the events unfolding in their living room that they went to the INS website, downloaded the applications – the final step in becoming US citizens – and filled them out that very day.

"It's difficult to express all the emotions I had on that day, but it felt like I had been punched in the stomach, like something had been ripped from me," says Mr. Valbuena.

Like many other immigrants living here, the Valbuenas had been content with their status as permanent residents. They could travel freely, work without fear, and take advantage of all that the US offered its citizens – short of voting.

But something changed for them and tens of thousands of others like them on Sept. 11. They say they no longer wanted to live as second-class citizens, and were compelled to act – whether through fear of tougher immigration laws or an overwhelming sense of patriotic pride.

INS statistics show a 61 percent increase in the filings for naturalization in the past fiscal year. This group of applicants is winding its way through the system and many are coming out on the other end as citizens – like the Valbuenas, who were sworn in at a June 21 naturalization ceremony. This will be their first 4th of July as full-fledged Americans.

"This 4th of July is making all of us reflect on what's important about our country, ideas of freedom and opportunity," says Barbara Strack, of the Center for the New American Community at the National Immigration Forum in Washington. "In the past, we might have tended to think a little more about picnics and fireworks, but Sept. 11 reminds us what the United States is all about."

In the 1990s, she says, 4.5 million people became new citizens – despite rising fees and lengthy waits.

'Testament of patriotism'

These record numbers, as well as the record number of applications since Sept. 11, she says, "are a real testament to the patriotism of immigrants and their belief in democracy and wanting to be part of it."

The Valbuenas say they've felt "part of it" for some time – but it was the terrorist attacks that crystallized it in their minds.

"Independence Day in Venezuela is July 5, but I don't remember the last time we celebrated it. We identify ourselves so much more with the US. It's where our hearts are," says Mr. Valbuena, an oil-industry consultant. "What happened on Sept. 11 confirmed that to us. Our hearts were telling us, 'Hey, you belong here. This is your home.' "

So, clad in matching blue jeans and red T-shirts and ball caps emblazoned with "USA," the couple pledged allegiance to the flag at their naturalization ceremony. Mrs. Valbuena waved a small US flag during the ceremony and wept during the singing of the national anthem.

They were among more than 2,300 immigrants who filled the Houston auditorium that Friday. Representing 115 countries, they came in suits, saris, and headscarves.

The latest census figures show that 22.6 percent of Houstonians were born outside the US, and many at the ceremony said they'd have filed for citizenship regardless of Sept. 11. But Jane Tragesser was not one of those. Nine years ago, she met and fell in love with an American who was on business in her native South Africa. The two married and settled in Houston to begin their family. She'd been thinking about becoming a naturalized US citizen for years but, as a permanent resident, never felt an overwhelming sense of importance or urgency.

Sept. 11 changed all that.

"That was the final straw," she says. "I was so horrified by what the terrorists had done and I felt this huge sense of compassion for the United States. But I realized I was not a US citizen and was not able to mourn as a US citizen."

She also knew that immigration laws would be stiffening and wanted to secure her status. So Mrs. Tragesser quickly began the naturalization process and says, while South Africa allows for dual citizenship, she was not interested. Just eight months later, she was standing in front of a federal judge in an olive-green pantsuit and bright red lipstick, taking an oath to her new homeland. All the while, her husband snapped photos and fussed with their baby girl, who was oblivious to the magnitude of the moment.

"The whole thing was very emotional for me," says Tragesser, who admitted to using a tissue during the ceremony. "I felt a great sense of pride and achievement, and a little relief. Now I can't be deported."

In typical American style, the couple hosted a Texas-size barbecue to celebrate – complete with friends and neighbors and, of course, apple pie.

He could hardly sit still

Across the auditorium, Josafat Contreras could hardly stay in his seat he was so overcome with excitement. On the drive back to work, he says he couldn't stop laughing.

"Everything feels different once you become a citizen," he says, a few days after the ceremony. "You feel like you really belong here, not just that the government has allowed you to be here for whatever reason."

Mr. Contreras has been in the country since he was 10 years old, when his parents first came to the US as pastors from Monterrey, Mexico. He'd been a permanent resident for about 15 years, but decided to finalize his status in November.

"After Sept. 11, I felt really strongly about wanting to be able to take up arms and defend this country," he says. "It has opened its doors to me and my family, and I want to be able to give something back."

While his family always celebrates 4th of July with a barbecue and fireworks, Contreras says this year he wants to do something extra special. "This time, I want to make a big deal out of it. This time I do."

The Valbuenas say they will do the traditional neighborhood July 4th celebration, with food and games and fireworks. This year, though, dessert will be a large American flag cake.

What's been most surprising to these two new citizens is how many people have been congratulating them on taking that final step. "So many people are saying 'Thank you for doing that,' " says Mr. Valbuena.

The Valbuenashad become permanent residents in the early 1990s, though they've been living here off and on for 20 years. They knew that someday they would take the step and become naturalized US citizens; they just weren't in any hurry.

But on the morning of Sept. 11, as they watched three airplanes hit both the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, their resolve took on great urgency.

"I told my wife, 'That's it. It's time we became citizens,' " says Valbuena. So the day the post offices reopened, the couple sent their paperwork to the INS: stamped "received" on Sept. 20.

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