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  • Renée C. Byer /

    More than 1,300 people from 81 different countries became U.S. citizens at a ceremony this month at Raley Field. Such large events will be rare in Sacramento from now on.

  • Renée C. Byer /

    Reta Dawood Sarsam, who grew up in Iraq, shows her naturalization certificate to her parents.

  • Renée C. Byer /

    Reta Dawood Sarsam , a 23-year-old rising senior at UC Davis, picks up her naturalization certificate. She came from Iraq, one of 21 countries represented by a single new citizen at a Raley Field ceremony this month.

  • Foon Rhee

Welcome to America

Published: Sunday, Jul. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E

They gathered from 81 countries around the globe – Afghanistan to Zimbabwe – all broiling in Sacramento's summer heat so they could add the latest spices to America's melting pot.

Though there were interesting life stories all around, I was most intrigued by the single person from each of 21 far-flung nations who became U.S. citizens. If there had been a parade like at the Olympic opening ceremonies, they would have been the lone athlete marching behind their country's flag.

Representing Iraq was Reta Dawood Sarsam, 23, a child of war.

She grew up in Baghdad in a relatively safe neighborhood, but says some relatives were among the many civilian casualties. "It was scary," she says. "We wanted to get out of Baghdad."

While she didn't want to say what she thought of the U.S. invasion and occupation, she was clear that she has no plans to return to Iraq. Even with the fighting over, there are still many problems and dangers, she says. Besides, her immediate family is all in America now. An uncle in New Jersey sponsored her when she came to California five years ago. Her parents, who live in San Jose, both recently became citizens, as did a brother. Her other brother is on the path to citizenship.

Sarsam is putting her faith in the promise of America. She's a rising senior at UC Davis, studying biochemistry and doing gene research into tuberculosis. After graduation next June, she hopes to land a lab research job.

"I'm feeling good becoming a U.S. citizen," she says. "It offers me so much opportunity."

Other new citizens fled countries struggling with desperate poverty, or just emerging from brutal dictatorships.

While conditions are better in Burma with the military junta out of power, Lyan Kyi Shwan, 57, of Sacramento said she was happy to become an American – and have more freedom.

Enkhjargal Erkhembayar, 24, came from Mongolia. She visited her brother-in-law and liked Northern California so much, she decided to stay. She now lives in Grass Valley, where she is raising two children.

After waiting five years to get her citizenship, "I'm really excited," she said.

Like those three women, more than 1 in 4 Californians were born in a foreign land. Of the state's 10 million immigrants, nearly half have become U.S. citizens.

For decades, the state has been the nation's biggest magnet for immigrants. They have fueled the rapid rise in California's population and have become bigger players in the economy, culture and politics.

That trend appears to be slowing, however. A USC analysis released in April says that the foreign-born share of the total population – which has risen from 22 percent in 1990 to about 27 percent now – will level off through 2030. Lower immigration rates will help delay when California reaches 50 million residents – from 2032 to 2046, the study projected.

Nationwide, the foreign-born population surged from less than 5 percent in 1970 to 12.5 percent in 2008 – 38 million Americans. Where they were born has also noticeably changed. Most came from Europe in the 1960s and 1970s; now the vast majority come from Latin America and Asia.

At the citizenship ceremony at Raley Field this month, the most common home nations were Mexico, the Philippines, India, Ukraine and Laos. The five accounted for nearly 60 percent of the 1,321 new citizens.

The event was the last and largest of naturalizations around the country, to celebrate the Fourth of July, that welcomed about 4,000 new U.S. citizens, adding to the 8 million-plus since 2000.

Until January, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. District Court had been holding mass swearing-ins once a month in Sacramento – since 2008 at Memorial Auditorium and before that at Crest Theatre. To ease the burden on the busy federal courts and to make it more convenient for those traveling to Sacramento from 23 counties from the Oregon border to the Central Valley, new citizens have been sworn in the same day they come in for interviews, typically in groups of fewer than 100 and by an immigration officer, not a judge. The San Francisco and San Jose field offices are also holding administrative ceremonies, while Los Angeles has kept the judicial ones.

The Raley Field event, the area's first large swearing-in since that change, came about because the city of West Sacramento pushed for it. These "special" ceremonies will be unusual from now on.

That's too bad. It did feel more momentous to have hundreds of immigrants and relatives sharing the occasion. They applauded a video welcome from President Barack Obama shown on the scoreboard big screen. "No dream is impossible," he told them.

Michael Biggs, director of the Sacramento field office for citizenship services, told them that whatever nationality they were when they woke up, "You will all leave as Americans."

They and their families certainly got a taste of what it means to be American – scarfing down hot dogs and ice cream, videotaping the ceremony with smartphones and waiting in one line after another, first to turn in their green cards, then to get their naturalization certificates and finally to apply for Social Security.

This being a big election year, the new citizens were immediately inundated by volunteers trying to sign them up as voters. Democratic groups were far more active and numerous. Kevin Carter, a volunteer for the Sacramento County Democratic Party and an Occupy activist, high-fived new citizens, but also harangued them to vote, even to protest if necessary.

"They need to get the message of what makes this country work," he told me.

Walking among all the new citizens brought back the memory of my own naturalization ceremony nearly 30 years ago. It was much smaller, a couple dozen people in a federal courtroom in Greensboro, N.C. I was on my own and had to borrow a car and miss classes to get there from Duke University, where I was a sophomore.

I tried to play it cool with my friends. After all, I already felt more American than Korean, having grown up in North Carolina and Ohio since fourth grade.

Still, when I raised my right hand to swear allegiance to the United States, I got that lump in my throat. It was a milestone in my life.

Some say that those who choose to become citizens take it less for granted than those who are born here, even that they're more patriotic. I'm not sure that's really true.

I do know that when I heard all those people at Raley Field renounce their prior loyalty to "any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty" – and cheer, whistle and clap afterward – it was proof that America is still a beacon for the rest of the world.

I do know that when I put my hand over my heart to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, it meant more than mere words. On that morning, all the contentious debates about illegal immigrants faded away. All the political and other divisions in our society didn't matter.

I had just one thought:

Welcome to America.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Foon Rhee, Associate editor

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