Conflict & Justice

New Americans On What Citizenship Means to Them

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Petal Taylor with her two daughters, Zahera, left, and Atiyyah, right, who recently became US citizens. (Photo: Mirela Iverac)

After all the talk about immigration reform, the process finally seems to be moving forward in Congress.

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A comprehensive immigration bill is now out of committee and on its way to the Senate floor, and on to the House of Representatives after that.

If the bill gets past those hurdles, 11 million immigrants living in the US illegally could be on a 13-year pathway to citizenship.

That seems like a very long wait.

But under existing law, even legal immigrants face years of waiting to become citizens.

Unless they're under 18, and have a parent who just became a citizen.

In that case, there's no waiting in line for the youngster.

Well, just waiting in line for a ceremony.

It sounds routine, the swearing-in of America's newest citizens. But on a recent morning in downtown New York, the crowd was unusually large — 119 children and teenagers were here, all receiving their citizenship certificates en masse. They came from over 30 countries, from Albania and Ecuador to Pakistan and the UK.

For many immigrants in the US getting a green card and eventually citizenship can be long and difficult. But if you are a young immigrant, under 18, and your parent just became a US citizen, well, you're eligible for automatic citizenship.

So, a few times a year in downtown New York, there's a large ceremony so that America's newest and youngest citizens can pick up their certificates.

Waving an American flag and flashing a big smile, Yeily Mateo said she'd been looking forward to this day for a long time.

"It makes me feel happy, and I always waited for this moment to happen," says 10-year-old Mateo.

Yeily and her 16-year-old brother, Michael, who also got his certificate, came from the Dominican Republic seven years ago. Explaining what this moment meant for him, he seemed to aim for what he thought was the right thing to say.

"It means a lot to me because I know I'm a part of this country now. I can go into the army," said Mateo.

But when asked if he really wanted to join the army, he said. "Not really," he said. "But if I have to I'm going to do it."

Otherwise, what would you like to do?

"I want to be a singer," he said; a rapper, to be precise.

Beaming with pride at Michael and Yeily was their dad, Julio. He came to the U.S. with his brother Robert, whose two sons also got their certificates at the ceremony. Julio said the whole family was ecstatic.

"Very happy, excited," said Julio Mateo. "My children are citizens. That means they're going to have better opportunities here."

Last year more than 50,000 children got their citizenship certificates. They are often accompanied by parents like Petal Taylor, who seemed to relish the moment more than their offspring. Taylor is a school crossing guard in Brooklyn. She watched as her two daughters, sporting bright pink jackets, got their certificates. Atiyyah, 10, was happy with her certificate, but 11-year-old Zahera had some reservations. She didn't like the photo that appeared on it.

"It looks OK," said Zahera.

"It looks okay," Petal Taylor said, adding: "I don't think they understand the extent of being a US citizen as of yet because they are still young."

Taylor, who is now 42, came to the US with her daughters from Trinidad seven years ago. For her, America is still the country where anything is possible. That is the message she says she tries to instill in her daughters every day.

"You have the opportunity to get more," she said. "Whatever dream you have, whatever value you want, you can work for it. The only limit is what you set for yourself. So, that's what I want for them: to know that there's no limit.

That day Atiyyah and Zahera, the two newly-minted Americans, were thinking about other limits–spending limits–and the celebratory shopping spree they'd be off to next.

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