54 new citizens welcomed to Vermont
PUTNEY — "Congrats Dad," read a sign with an American flag drawn on it. Alejandra Mena waived the sign in the air. The 18-year-old was teary-eyed as she watched her father walk across the stage and accept his certificate of citizenship.
On Thursday, 54 citizenship candidates became officially naturalized. The new citizens originally hailed from nearby countries such as Canada and Mexico to as far away as Bhutan and Grenada. The ceremony was held at Landmark College. Geoff Burgess, the head of the communications department, asked that the ceremony be held at Landmark to follow up on a unit he was teaching about immigration.
The unit was co-taught by Eric Bass, the co-founder and artistic director of Sandglass Theater, and centered around the plight of refugees. Students got to watch the Sandglass production of "Babylon," a play that focuses on real-life stories from refugees.
"It opened our eyes to the many layers of [the immigration process]," Burgess said of the play. Witnessing a naturalization was the next step, he said.
He personally got to shake each new citizen's hand. "They were really emotional," he said with a smile.
Honorable Geoffrey Crawford, a chief judge at the United States District Court for the District of Vermont, started the ceremony with a speech.
"Although our theme today is one of welcomingness, we should all start by considering the difficulty of the journeys you all made and the richness of the heritage that you bring with you from the countries of your birth," Crawford said.
He reminded both the new citizens and the audience that many of the people on stage left family behind. He reminded them that some of the new citizens were refugees whose birthplaces had been ravaged by war.
"Today we honor the continuing commitment of our nation to welcome and care for refugees who are seeking asylum for danger and mistreatment," he said. He said that he, and everyone else, honored the new citizens and their heritage. "You bring variety and energy and more. You've had experiences that we've yet to hear about. We are honored that you have chosen to make your lives here. We need you."
Crawford emphasized that in the U.S. people of all faiths were welcome. He mentioned Islam by name.
"We recognize that the Muslim faith is a long faith that has contributed greatly over 1,000 years to our nation," he said. "As Muslims, you have the same right as any other citizen. You have protection against discrimination on the basis of your religion, your national origin." He reminded everyone that their rights are protected under federal law and their protection enforced in the courts. "We welcome you as our brothers and sisters and citizens of the country that we all love and that you have chosen as your own."
Eduardo Mena, who was born in Venezuela, said he fell in love with the United States when he first went to New York City.
Mena used to visit Florida with his parents when he was younger. In 1997, Mena went to New York as a tourist and said he just stayed.
"In Venezuela, it's tough to make a living and survive. I saw a lot more opportunities here," he said. "My goal was to get married and have a family. I didn't want to live with my parents."
Mena found an employer who sponsored his path to citizenship and he was able to bring his fiance to the U.S. The two got married and had their daughter Alejandra. Now Mena and Alejandra live in Wilmington where Mena manages Scalia's Pizza. Alejandra is a freshman at Community College of Vermont's Brattleboro campus.
It took Mena 13 years to get his citizenship papers, another seven years until he got his citizenship. Mena said his experience wasn't typical. It took so long, in part, he said, because he had a business sponsor him. The process was also slowed down after 9/11.
Both Mena and Alejandra have been back to Venezuela. Mena went back two years ago, the first time since he left.
"It's almost impossible for Americans to go," Alejandra explained.
Mena agreed. "Venezuela is the worst it's ever been economically, politically, socially." Most of his family has moved because of the turmoil. "It's not a good place to be," he said. "I'm just glad that I made the decision to come here 20 years ago."
Alejandra watched both her parents get citizenship, her mother (who lives in Connecticut and wasn't present at the ceremony) got her citizenship last year.
"I always kind of felt inspired, because they never stopped trying and they worked so hard to become citizens in this country," she said. "Now, with the political issues we have going on, it's even harder because I see people around me who don't have what my parents have and haven't gotten the opportunity to be a citizen here."
She said she feels relieved knowing both her parents are officially citizens. "I feel proud of them," she said.
She feels lucky that her parents weren't in danger of being sent back to Venezuela.
Mena agreed. "It was very hard for me, and back then at least it was a hope," he said of the immigration process. "I was able to get my green card from amnesty." Mena was given Amnesty under Section 245 (i), which gives amnesty to aliens already in the U.S. with legal non-immigrant status. Section 245 (i) was originally enacted in 1994 and intended to last only three years. It was reinstated in 1997 but expired in 2002, according to Migration News, a University of California Davis publication.
"I don't see anything similar coming anytime soon," Mena said. He said he has friends who weren't as lucky as him. "They have kids here, they work and pay taxes, they did the right thing."
Here for decades
Beatriz Fantini, who was born in Bolivia, is a well-known name in the Brattleboro area. She's been in the community for 50 years. Burgess remarked that he had no idea she wasn't a U.S. citizen until Thursday. She's most known in the community as a Spanish language and methodology teacher at SIT Graduate Institute. Fantini's been in the U.S. for 52 years.
She had her green card when she met her future husband, Alvino, who was born in the U.S. The two met in Philadelphia through folk dancing, an activity they still enjoy doing together. Alvino worked at SIT as a faculty member and the director of the language department. Fantini moved with him to Dummerston after she got a job at SIT.
Fantini said she waited so long to get her citizenship because she didn't want to deal with the paperwork.
"I was traveling a lot for my job," she said. "And it did require a lot of time." After she retired, she decided she finally had the time to make her citizenship official.
She didn't feel very different after the ceremony. "I was always in Brattleboro. I was always in Vermont," she said. "I've been here half a century. I don't know how different it feels. The only thing I can't say now is 'I'm from Bolivia.'" She laughed. Now she can tell people, "I'm from the U.S."
Harmony Birch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.
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