A civics test. Fingerprinting. An immigration interview that took months to schedule.
All were part of the long road that brought 82 Pierce County residents on Saturday to Mount Tahoma High School, where they took the final step to becoming U.S. citizens.
Hailing from 32 countries, they were united as they recited the U.S. oath of citizenship, promising to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
For Victoria Mukisa, a 19-year-old student at Pierce College, receiving her naturalization certificate Saturday wasn’t the end of a journey, but the start of one.
“It was a relief. It was like the lock has been broken,” said Mukisa, who was born in Uganda. “I’m free to dream and not have to worry about, oh, this is going to hold me back.”
“It certifies that whatever I can dream, I can absolutely do, without any hesitation.”
Mukisa said being a U.S. citizen makes her eligible for additional scholarships, which can help her pursue goals such as an advanced degree in nursing.
Others said the ceremony confirmed on paper what they’ve known for years: That the United States is their home.
“I actually felt like this was the country where I was going to spend the rest of my life,” said Army Pfc. Jose Mendoza, who serves at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and came to the United States from Honduras in 2012. “That’s one of the reasons I joined the military, to give back.”
Now, the 26-year-old said, “I feel glad that I’m able to actually participate, and have a say in elections and what’s actually going on.”
Saturday’s citizenship event was the sixth instance of a celebration Pierce County has held annually since 2011. As the new citizens exited the high school auditorium with their naturalization certificates in hand, officials with the Pierce County Auditor and the Secretary of State offices were there to help them register to vote.
Earlier, volunteers with the Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution greeted the soon-to-be-citizens as they arrived, offering them copies of the U.S. Constitution and miniature American flags.
Bether Mbichire, 46, was one of many new citizens who waved a tiny flag while crossing the stage to receive her certificate Saturday, smiling all the way.
The new U.S. citizen, originally from Kenya, said voting is one privilege she plans to exercise immediately. That, and getting her first U.S. passport, the Spanaway resident said.
“I feel like I’m free. I feel like, this is my country, I’m home,” said Mbichire, who moved to the United States 16 years ago.
“My future is just to be a loyal citizen,” she said.
Steps to becoming a U.S. citizen
1. Determine eligibility. People eligible for naturalization generally are 18 or older and have lived in the United States for at least five years (three, if they are married to a U.S. citizen).
2. Apply for naturalization. Fill out a form, submit passport-sized photos and other documents. Pay fees.
3. Get fingerprinted. The FBI conducts background checks on all applicants for U.S. citizenship. A special appointment is needed to complete this process.
4. Complete a naturalization interview. Appointments are generally set far in advance. An immigration official will ask questions about an applicant’s documents and application form. Sometimes, applications are delayed if they are determined to require additional documents or a second interview. Some applicants are denied and must appeal.
5. Take a civics and English test. This is typically done the same day as the naturalization interview. Applicants must pass the test to become citizens, unless they are granted a waiver based on a disability.
6. Take the oath of allegiance to the United States. The final step to becoming a U.S. citizen, the oath is administered as part of the naturalization ceremony. The oath contains a promise to defend the laws and constitution of the United States, as well as to renounce allegiance to foreign governments.