Naturalization ceremony held as immigration a timely topic
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - David Gonzalez said he has always considered himself a West Virginian, and his prominent Appalachian accent supports that claim.
But the 40-year-old coal miner did not become a U.S. citizen until Monday morning, when he and 66 other people from 30 countries officially declared the United States their new home country.
U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Goodwin presided over the ceremony, held in the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse on Quarrier Street.
Gonzalez, of Beckley, came to the United States from Mexico when he was 6 years old. He has spent the last 20 years paying lawyers to work through the difficult legal maze of the U.S. immigration system.
All the while, Gonzalez spent thousands of dollars getting his visa renewed every few years to avoid being deported to a country he barely remembers.
He smiled widely following Monday's naturalization ceremony. He compared the experience to getting married.
"You're all nervous but when you get it done, it's great," he said. "It took me forever, but I finally got it done."
Congress soon may make the path to citizenship easier for people like Gonzalez.
A bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators last week released a new plan for immigration reform that included creating a path to citizenship for the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, along with provisions that would tighten border security.
On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told ABC News' "This Week" he is confident the Senate will pass immigration legislation.
President Barack Obama traveled to Nevada last week to tout his three-pronged approach to immigration reform: providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, reforming the current legal immigration process and stricter enforcement of immigration laws.
Republicans in the House of Representatives could thwart Reid and Obama's plans, as granting illegal immigrants citizenship is deeply unpopular in many of their home districts.
But Republicans also are facing increased pressure to win over the country's Hispanic voters, because Democrats currently dominate that sizeable demographic. Moving forward with immigration reform may be one way for Republicans to gain more favor among Hispanic voters.
Gonzalez said streamlining immigrants' path to citizenship would only help the United States.
"It would be more money for the economy. Use your head," he said.
Meena Anada, who co-owns the popular Little India restaurant on Charleston's East End with her husband, Harish, came to the United States from India in 1974.
"I was eligible in 1979, but I never got around to doing it," Anada said. "I put it off and put it off. But then everyone else was already naturalized so I decided to do it, too.
"I felt like I was already an American. I've lived here longer than I have in India."
Anada said of her six siblings, five came to the United States. Her oldest sister remained in India.
She was 21 and had just finished college when she came to live in America. With the sponsorship of her older brother, who lived in Gaithersburg, Md., at the time, she obtained a green card. She said the process is harder now to get a green card than it was in 1974 when hers was issued.
Her husband, Harish, came to this country in 1972 and was naturalized in the early 80s, she said. The couple met after she came to America. They fell in love and returned to their native India to marry.
They now have two grown children, a daughter who lives in Puerto Rico and is getting married in March, and a son who is working as an attorney in New Orleans. She said her children, who were born in America, also pushed her to go forward to get her citizenship.
She said she passed the citizenship test with a perfect score. She remembered much of the material on the test from helping her children with their American history homework when they were young.
Still, the ceremony was bittersweet for Anada, as her older brother who initially sponsored her died just last week after a battle with cancer.
"He never got to see me naturalized," she said. "He did so much for all of us."
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin spoke at Monday's ceremony and emphasized the importance of immigrants throughout America's history.
"We are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are one of the first Americans, the Native Americans, we all are descended from folks who come from somewhere else," he said.
Goodwin pointed out that the children of immigrants signed the Declaration of Independence and built the country's railroads. The soldiers who fought for America's freedom throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries all came from family trees rooted in other countries' soils.
"It's who we are. And now all of you get to write the next chapter," he said.
While Goodwin did not touch on the immigration debates churning in Washington, he echoed the president's remarks in Nevada.
"Immigration makes America stronger. Immigration positions America to lead in the 21st century," he said. "You are a testimony to that.
"You're one of the reasons why America is . . . always confident our best days are yet to come."
Writer Ashley B. Craig contributed to this report.