Apgar Amphitheater, located right against the pristine waters of Lake McDonald, transformed into a courtroom last Friday. On Sept. 29, surrounded by the rugged mountains and dense forests of Glacier National Park, 15 people gathered at the venue and recited America’s oath of allegiance to officially become American citizens, marking the culmination of their immigration journeys.
“I can’t believe that we are in God’s country with the trees behind us and the mountains,” Iris Aba Mae, a new U.S. citizen, originally from the Philippines, said. “This is an amazing, historic day for me. I’m so proud that after all the years and years of hardship, I’m here. I will wake up in the morning tomorrow and say, ‘I’m an American citizen and I’m so grateful.’”
The 15 new citizens all live in northwest Montana communities and originate from nine different countries – Canada, Mexico, China, Costa Rica, Philippines, Ukraine, Germany, South Africa and Thailand.
“When you drove into the gate today, you drove in as immigrants,” said John Daly, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Western Regional Director, addressing the newly minted citizens. “You walked into this amphitheater, you raised your right hand and took an oath of allegiance. After saying those 140 words, just about a minute, you became citizens of the United States, changing your life and the lives of your family forever.”
Naturalizations happen daily across the nation and National Parks have served as venues for these ceremonies since 2006. However, this is just the third time in history, and the first time since the pandemic, that Glacier has hosted one.
“It’s really emotional,” Claire Nicholson, public affairs officer for USCIS, said. “National Parks are just a great way to put a feather in the hat for these folks at the end of their immigration journey. Being around the grandeur of nature in an iconic park like Glacier, they are reminded of our nation’s strengths as a wonderful group of diverse people coming together and celebrating their citizenship.”
Joe Hauserman, an immigrant from Germany, has lived in the U.S. for 30 years. He said that participating in this ceremony against the park’s striking backdrop made him more excited about entering this new phase of his life.
“It feels very special,” Hauserman said. “It’s the best place on Earth to become an American citizen.”
Andrea Nunez, originally from Costa Rica, said that the most rewarding part of taking this final step in the immigration process is being closer to her family, who are all U.S. citizens.
“Becoming a U.S. citizen has been the dream for me, my husband, and my two kids,” Nunez said. “Now I will be able to come to the United States without worrying about papers or anything.”
U.S. District Court Judge John Johnston presided over the ceremony. He shared his own family’s immigration story and emphasized the importance of immigration to shaping American history.
“With the exception of our fellow Native American citizens, who were the first on this land, every single citizen has an immigration story,” Johnston said.
Guest speakers at the event also included representatives of Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, Congressman Ryan Zinke, Glacier National Park Superintendent, and a member of Daughters of the American Revolution.
“I know the road to get here was long and hard, but I promise you it’s well worth the wait,” said Tester’s Regional Director Caitlin Avey, delivering a statement on the senator’s behalf. “Immigrants like my grandparents, who settled here in Montana over a century ago, helped build America and make it what it is today. I’m grateful to welcome you into our family.”
Nicholson said having multiple speakers at a naturalization ceremony representing high-level political offices is unique.
“Part of the fun of holding a ceremony in a beautiful, noteworthy location like Glacier is that we get a lot of interest and people wanting to join,” Nicholson said. “So, it’s really special that we have so many speakers for this ceremony. It’s not always the norm.”
Winston Taylor, field representative for Daines, emphasized that the new citizens now have a responsibility to serve the nation.
“The strength of the United States has always come from its willingness to open its arms to people from all corners,” Taylor said, delivering a message from Daines. “As you begin your journey as American citizens, I encourage you to always be active and informed, exercise your right to vote, be involved in your community and be confident in your ability to achieve anything you set your mind to.”
Aba Mae said that she will be exercising these civic duties, especially during the next presidential election.
“I’m going to celebrate with my family and friends,” Aba Mae said. “I would love to vote and do my part as a citizen for next year’s election. I’m definitely going to get involved.”
Everyone participating in or attending the ceremony received free entry into Glacier for the day. Glacier Public Information Officer Gina Icenoggle said that in addition to highlighting their beauty, hosting these ceremonies also benefits National Parks. The new citizens can now vote, serve on juries, apply for federal jobs, and run for elected office. Icenoggle hopes that they will use these powers to protect National Park Service units.
“We consider places like Glacier National Park very special and important to preserve for future generations,” Icenoggle said. “That includes now these people’s future generations and their future enjoyment of those parks as American citizens.”
Daly added that he hopes that the event will inspire the new citizens to be unafraid to assume an active role in shaping the nation’s future in all areas.
“America’s greatness does not lie in his past,” Daly said, addressing the new citizens. “It doesn’t lie in its buildings, it doesn’t lie in its cities, or even its natural beauty, such as the breathtaking landscape around us here at Glacier National Park. America’s true greatness lies in each and every one of its citizens. It’s you who must keep the American Dream alive, it is you who must ensure that Lady Liberty’s torch burns brightly for all those that follow you.”
For those looking to learn more about process of becoming a citizen, USCIS encourages them to look at uscis.gov/citizenship.
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