Foreign-born sailors become Americans
By Sonja Barisic
NORFOLK They're from China, Haiti, Mexico, Ukraine all over the world but they wear the uniform of the U.S. Navy. And now they can call themselves Americans.
More than 220 sailors, including many who recently came home from the Iraq war, were sworn in yesterday as citizens of the country they defend.
They had applied for U.S. citizenship under an executive order President Bush issued last year, making immigrants serving in the military since the September 11 attacks immediately eligible for naturalization.
"I'm very happy to be an American," said Agbasi Ebuka, 29, a petty officer third class from Nnewi, Nigeria, who is stationed aboard the destroyer USS Bulkeley.
"America is the most free country in the whole world. You have the freedom to live your life the way you want to."
Eduardo Aguirre, director of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, administered an oath of allegiance to the 222 sailors as they stood and raised their right hands during the ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, at Norfolk Naval Station.
The sailors, in their dress-white uniforms, then waved American flags as family members and friends gathered in the carrier's hangar bay cheered wildly and snapped photos.
"When I look at you, I see myself. I understand your sense of excitement and joy," Mr. Aguirre told the sailors, recalling how he came to the United States as a 15-year-old Cuban refugee in search of a better life. He became a naturalized citizen 33 years ago.
Mr. Bush congratulated the sailors through a videotaped greeting, saying, "You're now an important part of American democracy."
The new citizens hail from 51 countries. About 80 percent of the sailors, all based in the Norfolk area, were deployed during the Iraq war, officials said.
Normally during peacetime, noncitizens in the military can apply for naturalization after three years of service. Immigrants not in the military must be legal residents for five years before they become eligible for naturalization.
Mr. Bush's order has led many more immigrants in the military to apply for citizenship, officials said.
Nearly 9,000 military members have applied for citizenship since Oct. 1, the start of the 2003 federal fiscal year, said Russ Knocke, Mr. Aguirre's press secretary. By comparison, 749 military members were naturalized in fiscal 2001, and 1,055 were naturalized in 2002, he said.
Many of the new Americans, like 23-year-old Seaman John Lopez, who was born in Cali, Colombia, said they wanted to become citizens so they can advance in their military careers. Only citizens can be promoted to be commissioned officers.
But Seaman Lopez, who served in the Iraq war aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, said his desire for citizenship was also based on something simple but important: "I wanted to be part of the United States."
Airman Oliver Cukor, 29, a structural mechanic from Zagreb,Croatia, was motivated by love.
He met his wife, Barbara, of Charleston, S.C., on the Internet seven years ago, and they married last October, a few months after he moved to the United States.
Airman Cukor said he almost cried as he recited the naturalization oath, in which citizen candidates renounce allegiance to their home country.
"It was hard to do," Airman Cukor said. "But I believe being a citizen of America is being a citizen of the world."