They stood beneath the formidable 16-inch guns of the Battleship New Jersey in Camden and took the oath of citizenship. Forty-two immigrants from 28 countries swore allegiance to America at a time when their new nation’s struggling with volatile immigration policies. Ceremonial speakers urged them to get involved.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport. It’s full-contact participatory endeavor. You’ve got to get off the sidelines and get into the game,” said Sen. Cory Booker.
“You have the right to vote. We have volunteers over there who will help you register to vote. If you like something, vote for something to stay. If you don’t like something, vote for a change,” said Ya-Mei Chen, the director of the Mount Laurel field office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Office.
Eight of these new citizens are already serving in the U.S. military. One came here from Jamaica, Kent Bariffe, sponsored by his mother in a program called ‘chain migration’ by the Trump administration, which wants to close that door to citizenship.
“If they bring that to an end, it would kind of suck because there’s a lot of great people out there who want to come to this country to help benefit it,” said Barriffe.
From the time he put in his application, it took David Cieslik 10 years to become a citizen.
“It was a long wait but it was worth it, because I was able to join the greatest country in the world and serve for the greatest military in the world,” said Cieslik.
The backlog of people waiting for this special day is getting larger and the average wait time is getting longer as more people apply for U.S. citizenship. Nationally, 734,209 at the end of last year compared to 388,832 in December 2015. And New Jersey’s among the top ten states with the largest backlogs with 30,896 last year, compared to 18,380 in 2015, according to a report by the National Partnership for New Americans.
“Here are folks who are coming through a long and arduous process. We should make sure that the system works for them,” Sen. Booker said.
“We do have some backlogs that we’re working hard to work on. In fact, our offices here in New Jersey, Newark and Mount Laurel, our staffing is at the best that we’ve ever had, so we’re working at it. There’s a lot of challenges to this. We’ve got some new systems that we have to utilize, but we’re working hard. We’re getting there, and hopefully this time next year we won’t be talking about any backlogs,” explained the USCIS Newark District Director John Thompson.
A United States Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman discounted the report, stating, “ … the total number of people the U.S. naturalizes each year has remained virtually unchanged. What we’re looking at is a dishonest and desperate attempt by open borders advocates to undermine the work of Homeland Security officials, law enforcement and the administration to protect the integrity of our immigration system and uphold the rule of law.”
New Jersey naturalized about 37,000 applicants last year. But the long wait becomes fraught with anxiety as the national argument over immigration daily becomes more strident, with families torn apart at the southern border still not reunited, and unauthorized immigrants living locally for years deported by ICE in rising numbers.
Henry Carerra is from Ecuador with an American wife and daughter. The whole family is relieved Henry’s finally a citizen. He was worried.
“They taking me, send me back home. My family here, I couldn’t imagine being separated from my family,” Carrera said.
“It’s just nerve-racking that he didn’t have his citizenship. So we’re happy that now he does and we don’t have to worry,” said Henry’s wife, Ashley Carrera.
For these folks, the long wait is over. And for them, the nation’s birthday will forever be connected to their U.S. citizenship