Twenty-three-year-old Andrea Nelson fought back tears when she received a certificate Friday that officially declared her a U.S. citizen.
“My family’s helped me out a lot,” she said, “so it’s just a little emotional now that I finally got it.”
Nelson, a Yakutat resident originally from Berlin, was one of 32 Alaskans who obtained American citizenship during a naturalization ceremony held Friday morning in U.S. District Court at the Juneau federal building.
The courtroom was packed with an encouraging and lively audience of family members, friends and well-wishers who watched the 32 swear an oath of allegiance to the country. U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie Longenbaugh offered her congratulations after local singer Jay Query led the crowd in song with ‘America the Beautiful.’
“As new citizens of the United States, you all now walk in the footsteps of millions of others,” the judge said. “With the oath that you’ve sworn here today, you’re every bit as much an American as those who have come before you. Please allow me to be among the very first to welcome you.”
For most of the new citizens, who hail from 15 different countries, it’s an accomplishment that they’ve long waited for. Nikotimasi Latu, a 33-year-old from the Polynesian islands of Tonga, said it took him about seven years. He first came to the U.S. on a visitor visa in 1999 and stayed on a green card. After meeting his future wife, a U.S. citizen and born and bred Southeast Alaskan, and marrying her in 2006, he petitioned for citizenship, which entails a years-long wait.
“It’s a long process,” he said, adding it’s worth it. He said he never wants to take his new citizenship for granted. “There are billions of people that they would die to take our shoes to become an American citizen, and here we are,” he said.
He held up his certificate that was presented to him by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer, and said, “Today, it means a lot more than just a piece of paper. It defines who we are as people. We stand for something. We stand for human beings as one race, that we are the same.”
In order to become a citizen, applicants must pass an oral test on U.S. civics and history. Interviewers ask them 10 questions out of 100 possible questions that they’ve studied. They have to answer six of them correctly.
Annie Lazo, a 36-year-old accountant for the state’s Office of Children’s Services from the Philippines, said her 12-year-old son Abram, who was born in the U.S., helped her study for the test by reading questions to her. She flew to Anchorage to take the test and passed earlier this month.
“I’m overwhelmed,” she said on Friday, standing in the courtroom lobby next to her mother. “I’m very happy.”
Her mother Patricia received her citizenship in the same courtroom almost exactly 10 years ago. She immigrated to Alaska from the Philippines in 1996 to be with family members who were already living here. Watching her daughter become a citizen on Friday was a “fulfillment in dreams,” she said.
“Now we’re all U.S. citizens,” she beamed.
The majority of the newest citizens, 13, hailed from the Philippines. The rest were from India, Mexico, South Korea, Tonga, Argentina, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Germany, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Russia, Turkey and Western Samoa.
U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services Officer Sara Hardgrove, who flew down from Anchorage to lead the ceremony alongside the Juneau judge, estimated that her office receives some 1,200 naturalization applications from Alaska each year. She estimated about two-thirds or three-quarters of the applications are accepted. Some of the common reasons for disqualification are for spending too much time outside the country, having a criminal history or failing to pay child support.
Although they were not yet citizens, many of those sworn in on Friday have long called southeast Alaska home. Sofya Stepanova came to Juneau as an exchange student from Russia in 2003, and stayed after she graduated from the University of Alaska Southeast. She met her now husband, Iliya Stepanov, also from Russia, here on her second day in town. The two were married in 2007.
A former accountant for the state of Alaska and a current day care provider, Sofya didn’t have much family left in Russia and wanted to stay here to raise her family, she said as she lifted her 3-and-half-year-old daughter Natalya up into her arms.
“I like it here,” she laughed. “It has a lot more opportunities, a lot more possibilities here.”
“I think it opens a lot of doors,” Iliya added, “and she’s finally able to cast her vote in elections.”
Andrea Nelson has lived in Yakutat for 18 years. She came to the Alaska at 5 years old — her German mother had met her American father while he was stationed with the U.S. Army in Friedburg, Germany, and they moved back to Southeast Alaska with him.
Nelson’s dad Glenn Israelson said he and her mother divorced about four and a half years ago, and Nelson decided to remain here in the States rather than return to Europe. The family then talked her into getting her U.S. citizenship.
“Part of the problem was she was so young when she came over, she really had no documentation as far as like a German passport or anything like that other than her alien registration cards,” Israelson, a commercial fisherman and U.S. Forest Service employee, said. “And if that would have expired, she would have been a woman with no country.”
Nelson said she wouldn’t have been able to meet this milestone without the help and support of her father, her father’s fiance Sarah Spencer, her grandmother, her aunt and her young sister, who all attended Friday’s ceremony.
“I was nervous as all biscuits, I don’t know why but I was,” she said of the ceremony.
“Well, it’s a big deal!” Spencer interjected.
“But I’m excited it’s over, and I can finally call myself a U.S. citizen,” she said.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at email@example.com.