Seattle naturalization ceremony creates 500 new Americans, underscores immigration tensions

In a ceremony that captured both the aspirations and tensions of immigration in America today, 500 men and women from 80 countries were sworn in as new U.S. citizens at an emotional Fourth of July event at the Seattle Center.

“I’m so proud to be part of this,” said Omar Abbaker, a 44-year-old from war-torn Sudan who came to America as a refugee six years ago with his wife, Widad, 34, who was also being sworn in. He seemed dazzled and delighted by the diversity of his fellow citizens-to-be.

“Right now, all the world is here,” he added, nodding at a crowd that represented “our different colors and different nations and different cultures.”

Indeed, the breadth of nationalities represented at Thursday’s ceremony at Fisher Pavilion played like a spontaneous advertisement for the American melting pot, with newcomers from countries ranging from American Samoa and Armenia to Zambia and Zimbabwe, and, just outside the pavilion, a massive crowd of flag-waving family members and other well-wishers.

It was 35th such event to be held in Seattle on the 4th of July, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and one of 110 such ceremonies across the country that were slated to naturalize nearly 7,500 new citizens.

The ceremony, which culminates in an Oath Allegiance, is the final step in a long bureaucratic process that bestows new rights, including the right to vote, and adds new duties, not least an obligation to military service if called.

For many in the Fisher Pavilion, the event marked the culmination of a dream some waited years — even decades — to achieve.

Gomez Conrado, 71, who arrived from the Philippines in 1999, says he was drawn to the U.S. by the promise of both economic and political freedom. “It’s a big day for me,” he said, eyes widening, as he waited for the ceremony to begin.

Seated in the front row was Gabriel Graterol, a 29-year-old from Venezuela who is serving in the U.S. Navy on Whidbey Island — one of 37 new citizens who are already serving the armed forces. He talked of his excitement over the chance to participate in the democracy that his strife-torn home country no longer enjoys.

The ceremony illustrated the shifting demographics of immigration to the Pacific Northwest. Although the crowd was drawn from around the world, several countries were particularly well represented: 25 new citizens from Ukraine, 27 from South Korea, 27 from Mexico, 30 from China, 40 from India and 50 from the Philippines.

The tone was largely celebratory, with inspirational sentiments from King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell and Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, and a gorgeous a cappella version of “America the Beautiful” by Josephine Howell.

Yet, proceedings also reflected the rising tensions around U.S. immigration policy.

Even as the 5oo immigrants and refugees prepared to take the Oath of Allegiance, controversies over the current federal crackdown on immigration, as well as family separations and detention centers, hung in the air.

“You join our American family at a time of great debate, debate about the fundamental principles of our immigrant nation,” said Constantine.

Indeed, the ceremony came during a week when lawyers and lawmakers raised concerns about crowded, unsanitary conditions in which immigrants are being held at the border, and as a federal judge in Seattle ruled against a Trump administration policy to detain asylum-seekers.

Inevitably, the Trump administration seemed to be present, invoked by several speakers.

“Our strength as a nation, in my opinion, does not come from a parade of tanks,” said Sen. Cantwell, the ceremony’s keynote speaker, in a pointed reference to President Trump’s Fourth of July Parade. “It comes from the commitment to uphold the ideals of the nation — of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Still, it was that last sentiment — happiness — that seemed to be the dominant sentiment for those in attendance.

Chief Judge Ricardo S. Martinez of the U.S. District Court in the Western District of Washington administered the Oath of Allegiance and then offered his own immigrant story — that of his father, who after 40 years with just a green card, decided to become a citizen.

“‘This county has been good, so good to me and for my children,’” Martinez recalled his father saying. “I want to be more involved. I want to vote.’

As the ceremony concluded, 500 new Americans began filing out of the pavilion to meet family and friends. Among them were several women from China who didn’t want to give their names, for fear of repercussions for family still back home, but who still couldn’t help but smile as they left the ceremony. “I feel like a new person!” said one.

That feeling was shared by Nazar Ali, a 51-year old who arrived from Iraq in 2001 but who, as an ethnic Kurd, had never experienced full citizenship until Thursday’s ceremony. “Now, I’m a citizen,” he said. “You feel like a newborn.”


Staff reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this report.

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