For many Americans, the Fourth of July brings another year of family get-togethers and loud fireworks.
But for the 46 Southern Nevada residents who sat in the Las Vegas federal court’s Jury Assembly Hall in mid-June, the holiday marks their first Independence Day as new citizens — and often, the culmination of a difficult road.
Many immigrants went through multi-year journeys to arrive at this point. Some struggled and left their families behind in the hope of a better future, and some have family members still living in countries with oppressive regimes and violence.
As President Donald Trump’s administration has implemented stricter immigration controls, some felt a sense of urgency for not only the security of citizenship, but to now have a voice in a country that they have called home for many years. Trump himself made an appearance at the naturalization ceremony in the form of a pre-recorded video congratulating them on becoming Americans.
“My dear fellow American, it is with great pride that I welcome you into the American family,” he said in the video. “No matter where you come from or what faith you practice, this country is now your country. Our history is now your history, and our traditions are now your traditions.”
As he finished his announcement with “God Bless America.”
Officiating the ceremony was Judge Brenda Weksler, an immigrant from Argentina who said she resonated with the experience of the audience after taking the oath of citizenship herself 18 years ago.
“While you are becoming U.S. citizens, that does not mean that you have to forget who you are, what your customs are, what your language is,” she told the audience. “Those traditions are important and they make you who you are and they make the country the country that it is today.”
Below are the stories of some of the new citizens, who hailed from China, Cuba, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Thailand, United Kingdom and Vietnam.
A love story and an emerging voice
When Karla Lacy visited Las Vegas about seven years ago to see her aunt, she could not foresee living here for the rest of her life. Unable to speak English at the time, she described herself as a very shy person.
But over time, she learned the importance of her voice. She doesn’t want to go on another day without using it.
“I am going to raise my voice. That is the first thing I’ll do,” said Lacy, a newly minted citizen who hopes to get involved with politics and help groups that don’t currently have that voice.
Lacy was 21 years old and on vacation from Honduras when she accompanied her aunt to a phone repair store and caught the attention of her future husband.
“I didn’t know any English at all, and I saw all these white kids, and I got so shy,” she said.
When her aunt returned the following day by herself, the man who worked at the store asked about Lacy and pleaded for her phone number.
“I don’t know how he got my aunt to give him my phone number, but he did,” said Lacy, who returned to Honduras soon after.
She and her future husband used Google Translate to communicate across their language barrier. After a couple weeks of persistence, Lacy decided he deserved a chance: “Let me give him an opportunity to be my friend at least.”
“But, he got my heart,” she added with a smile.
She returned to Las Vegas the following year and they got married in court. She’s been here ever since.
During her time in the U.S., she has attended school to study English and worked as a waitress and in an English call center.
“I pushed myself,” she said. “I said if I need to learn the language, then I need to find a job that I have to get out of my circle and speak.”
As the “Star-Spangled Banner” played during the ceremony, Lacy looked down at the small flag in her hand, seemingly mesmerized. Most of her family is back in Honduras, where she says conditions are bad.
“I feel really lucky to be one of my people, that I’m here, that I can try to pursue my dreams,” she said.
Although Lacy is grateful to the country, she said what pushed her to get naturalized was the current state of immigration policy. She disagrees with some of the changes Trump has made, especially in regard to DREAMers.
“I didn’t feel safe anymore, even if I was a resident. I didn’t feel safe,” Lacy said. “I didn’t want to have that thought in my head. I wanted to feel okay because I come from a country that there’s a lot of insecurities. You get out of work one day and you don’t know if you are going to come back.”
Lacy has come a long way from the girl afraid and timid in the phone store.
“I am going to raise my voice and I am going to vote,” she said.
A long wait
June 14 is a day Maylinn Rosales will always remember as one of the most significant moments in her life. Twenty years had passed before she could finally hold the document she waited to have for so long: her Certificate of Naturalization.
A native of Nicaragua, Rosales’ immigration process began with a student visa, then a work permit and residency before she finally achieved citizenship. Her eyes shining with emotion, she also said it was absurd the process could take so long.
“Immigration reform is absolutely needed, and it needs to be taken serious,” Rosales said. “It’s not just about people who are illegally here, but it’s about people who are legally here trying to get naturalized.”
Rosales, who studied civil engineering in the United States, said she was compelled to become a citizen because of the uncertainty in immigration policy under the Trump administration — especially with the H1-B Visa geared toward hiring foreign professionals and that she had while first working in the country.
In April 2017, Trump signed an executive order to “create better wages and employment rates in the country” and instructed some federal agencies to implement policies that would ensure that H-1B visas were issued only to the most qualified and best-paid applicants.
Earlier this year, the president said on his Twitter account that the program, which grants 85,000 visas annually, would be based on merit and that there might be a path to citizenship.
“That scared me a lot,” Rosales said after the naturalization ceremony. “So, I chose to become a citizen because now there is no way I will have a status that is not legal in this country.”
After taking photos with her family and Judge Weksler, Rosales noted that another great source of satisfaction is the chance to exercise her civic rights.
“I think many Americans do not take advantage of their ability to vote,” she said. “I am very excited that now I will be able to vote.”
“What I can tell you? I am a woman warrior. I am 78 years old,” Aida Casillas said as she begins to tell her story of becoming a new citizen of the United States.
Casillas came to the U.S. 17 years ago. In 2003, she took her citizenship test in English, and although she didn’t pass, she never gave up.
“Right there they told me; ‘Wait, lady. After you spend 15 years in this country, apply again,’ she said as she walked with a hurried step towards the exit after her naturalization ceremony. “And look at me now.”
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) indicates that the naturalization test requires knowledge of English and basic U.S. civics. In some cases, such as when an applicant is 50 years old or more and depending on when they attained permanent resident status, an applicant may request an exception on the English proficiency requirement, the civics test, or both.
When the moment to restart her process came, Casillas studied the content in Spanish. This time she easily passed the civics test and the interview, with the help of an interpreter.
Wearing a red dress and with a big smile on her face, Casillas said she was grateful to the United States because it is the land of opportunity, and in 2020 she will finally be able to do what she wants most as a new citizen: participate in the electoral process.
“I am happy! I’m older now, but my children and grandchildren are in this country,” she said. “I feel blessed because now I have rights I didn’t have before, such as access to voting. I used to see that everyone was voting and I couldn’t. How sad, right?”