The immigration debate brought Washington, D.C., to a standstill this week, drove much of the discussion at presidential debates in 2016 and has been one of President Donald Trump’s signature platforms.
But there was little discussion of any political controversies Tuesday as more than 500 people from 65 countries were sworn in as U.S. citizens during an emotional ceremony at the South Florida Fair.
Immigration was a key sticking point for Democrats in Congress in the recent three-day shutdown of the federal government. Republicans and Democrats went back and forth for weeks trying to cut a deal to extend the stay for young people known as Dreamers, who are in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Often referred to as DACA, the policy allowed people who were brought to, came to or stayed in the U.S. illegally to remain for two years while being eligible to work.
The stopgap spending measure signed Monday by Trump did not include a DACA deal. Lawmakers must approve a longer spending plan by Feb. 8.
This is the seventh year U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has held the massive swearing-in during the fair. The setting is a “very fitting place” for new citizens to take the oath, said Rick Vymlatil, president and CEO of South Florida Fair and Palm Beach County Expositions Inc.
“Fairs are uniquely Americana, and there’s nothing more American than a citizenship swearing-in ceremony,” he said.
Richard Walcott of Port St. Lucie moved to the U.S. from Jamaica about 20 years ago. He was one of many people in the crowd taking the oath of citizenship with family: His parents, Therena and Vascell, also became citizens Tuesday.
“For me, personally, it’s a proud moment,” Richard said. His wife, Alba, and three young sons were in the crowd to cheer him on. “I’m fortunate that I can do it. Especially seeing how many people are getting sent home.
“I have my kids to think about,” he added.
Coming from different countries, Raj and Anisley Maharaj stood side-by-side with their nearly 2-year-old son, Aiden, as they took the oath. Raj, of Trinidad, and Anisley, of Cuba, said they were excited to become citizens. The immigration debate has been ever-present in their lives, Raj said. He first came to the U.S. in 2002.
“It’s always a constant, on-going issue,” he said. “Regardless of who’s president, they never seem to have a solution.”
In delivering the keynote speech to the new citizens following their oath and a recorded video message from Trump — “When you give your love and loyalty to America, she returns her love and loyalty to you,” the president said — South Florida Fair trustee and immediate past chair Jack Frost encouraged the crowd to register to vote.
“How exciting is it to know that you, yes, each and every one of you, having sworn allegiance to the United States, can now be an integral part of the democracy and action in this great country?” Frost said.
It was a message many in attendance took to heart. After the ceremony, the line was long to register to vote at a nearby Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections booth. Sisters Valentina and Catalina Morales, who were born in Colombia and now live in Wellington, planned to sign up — the right to vote now a symbol of their new-found citizenship.
Catalina pointed to the recent efforts to extend the stay for Dreamers. “You see how hard this process has been for some people, and it makes you see we’re definitely blessed to be here today,” Catalina said.
Though Carlos Soriano became a U.S. citizen eight years ago, he took the opportunity Tuesday to register to vote.
“I want to make sure for the next election that my vote counts,” said Soriano, who was at the ceremony to support a friend who took the oath of citizenship.
There have been widespread protests in Soriano’s birth country of Honduras recently alleging voter fraud in the re-election of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Soriano said he never voted in Honduras.
“It’s a total war zone,” he said. “I don’t want that to happen over here.”
Gabriela “Gabi” Dimitrova and her parents, Galina and Ventsislav, moved to the U.S. from Bulgaria in 2006. Since then, they have worked toward becoming citizens. The family owns and operates Jay’s Pizza and Pasta in Royal Palm Beach.
Gabi graduated from Palm Beach Gardens High School, where she was a member of the school’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter. Having her citizenship makes her feel “safer,” she said. “I’ll have my passport,” Gabi added. “I can visit Bulgaria whenever I want to now and not have to worry about coming back.”
She also planned to register to vote Tuesday.
“I have some friends who have family who are Dreamers,” she said. “I’m very passionate about that. And I’m so happy I can vote now.”