Haitham Layth Mohammed Ali trembled anxiously Thursday as he raised his right hand to recite an oath of allegiance to his new home country.
Moments later, the 11-year-old who fled to Utah from Iraq with his family held up a certificate of U.S. citizenship, saying it made him feel like a true American.
“It really means a lot to me,” the boy said as he was surrounded by his beaming mother, aunt and younger sisters at a ceremony in Salt Lake City.
Ali and nearly a dozen other immigrant children had already obtained citizenship through their parents, whether by adoption or their parents becoming naturalized citizens. But Laura McNeer, Utah field office director with U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services, said the oaths and certificates were a way to recognize their new status more officially.
More than 340 residents younger than 18 received certificates of citizenship in Utah between October 2016 and the end of September, McNeer said.
Thursday’s ceremony drew participants from Peru, Taiwan, Mexico, Vietnam and Thailand and was attended by Utah Rep. Mia Love, who offered remarks about her own family’s journey to the U.S. from Haiti.
Love said that the day her father was naturalized was among the proudest of his life. The two-term Republican from Saratoga Springs said she was raised with a belief that being a U.S. citizen meant taking on both the blessings and responsibilities of being an American.
“That means when you see someone in need of your help, you will stand up proudly and hold your head high and say you will help,” she said.
Love is a co-sponsor of legislation in Congress to allow residents who immigrated to the U.S. illegally as children to avoid deportation and gain citizenship, after President Donald Trump moved to rescind the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Love said that although she had hoped Congress would have voted on a replacement for DACA before year’s end, she has received assurances the issue would be addressed at the beginning of 2018.
“We have to have a fix,” Love said. “I am determined to have a fix and I am determined to help people who want to be here legally be able to stay here legally.”
Ali immigrated to the U.S. from war-torn Baghdad with his parents in 2009, his aunt Layla Hussein said following the Thursday’s oaths. Both of his parents became citizens three years ago, Hussein said, but hoped the ceremony would make the experience memorable for Ali.
Although his father couldn’t watch him get his certificate in person – he is in the U.S. Army and currently deployed in Kuwait – his mother, Suha, filmed the entire ceremony.
“I’m not sure what could be more amazing and awesome than this,” Ali said.