Eliseo Hernandez had just watched two of his daughters raise their right hand, recite an oath and become naturalized U.S. citizens. What did he think? He had a hard time putting it into words.
“What can I say,” the father, who immigrated here from Mexico nine years ago, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I don’t know, I don’t know what to say. Well, I’m just happy for them that they are citizens and that they are going to be OK, you know? In the future, here.”
Ximena and Paulina Hernandez, 16 and 13, were among the 21 young people who took the citizenship oath at West Jordan’s Viridian Event Center on Monday.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who was there to congratulate the nearly two dozen young immigrants, ages 4 to 22, told them that “Utah welcomes you all, each and every one of you.”
McAdams brought up Pioneer Day and said the holiday “doesn’t just celebrate something that happens in 1847 when the Mormon pioneers came here seeking a place to practice their religion.” Rather, the mayor said, “it is an ongoing part of our heritage. And you are a part of that. You are today’s pioneers.”
Ximena Hernandez, who has lived in the U.S. since she was 7, described “just feeling really happy” that she and her sister are finally able to call themselves American citizens. “I’m grateful for my parents,” she added.
Biruk Mekonnen, 20, who moved to Utah from Kenya five years ago, said he was thankful for his uncle who helped him work through a “difficult” citizenship process. “Everything happened because of him,” Mekonnen said. “The process has been hard, it was difficult to get [citizenship].”
What about the citizenship process was difficult? All of the paperwork, required identification, and the anxiety of “whether you will get it or not,” he said. “So it was a little bit scary, too.”
Abdalla Dadiri, also from Kenya, said he was just excited to be a citizen. “[I’ve] been here my whole life,” said Dadiri, who is 16. “I came here around 2 [years old].”
It’s a similar story for 17-year-old Anthony Alania, who is originally from Peru but has lived in the U.S. since he was 4. He said he may vote this year, to “try it out.”
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there were about 5,800 people in Utah who were naturalized as U.S. citizens in 2017 and more than 716,000 people nationally. The Tribune reported last week that Utah has an “alarming backlog” of legal immigrants who are waiting for approval of their citizenship applications. McAdams, along with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, joined a group of 45 mayors and county executives nationally to ask federal officials to “take aggressive steps to reduce the waiting time,” which can reach up to 20 months.
On Friday, 110 adult immigrants from 41 countries were naturalized as citizens and honored at the state Capitol. McAdams’ opponent in the race for Utah’s 4th congressional district seat, incumbent Rep. Mia Love, gave a speech at Friday’s naturalization ceremony.