Fifty new U.S. citizens inaugurated their American dreams Monday in the shadow of the Omaha birth site of the nation's 38th president.
The first chore for many of the newly minted citizens at the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center was to get on with the business of being an American. They filled out voter registration forms.
Then they took advantage of another American privilege: a pre-lunch snack of cookies and punch, courtesy of the Florence Kiwanis Club.
But the first order of business for Iraqi immigrants Mohammed Alhamadani, 43, and his wife, Nada Mohamad, 42, was to pose for photographs with their naturalization certificates in front of the Stars and Stripes. The Lincoln couple are part of a wave of immigrants from diverse countries that federal officials hope will embrace the common core of U.S. civic culture and fully become Americans.
Alhamadani said they’re ready.
“Today is a great day for us,’’ he said. “We feel it’s the first time ever that we belong somewhere. That we have a country. That we have a community. That we have something we’re attached to.’’
Alhamadani said American citizenship would create a foundation for the rest of the couple’s lives.
“We have so many big plans. It’s countless,’’ he said. “We can’t even think about it right now. We’re a little bit excited.’’
The couple came to the United States in April 2008. Alhamadani, who was a linguist in Iraq for the U.S. Army, works for Lutheran Family Services and Mohamad works for Goodwill Industries.
“I have so many ideas to put into motion that weren’t possible in the past because I needed my citizenship,’’ Alhamadani said. “This is our big day. I’m speechless.’’
The ceremony was held at the conservation center to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ford’s July 14, 1913, birth next door, at the corner of 32nd and Woolworth Streets.
Although Ford was not an immigrant, his future was as uncertain as the futures of many immigrants, Michael Smith, director of the Nebraska State Historical Society, said in a keynote address before the applicants took the oath.
Born into a broken home, Ford used his talents, skills and hard work to become a successful professional, a husband and father and a national leader who helped the United States through a difficult period, Smith said.
“Nothing that happened to him in the first two weeks of his life would have given any clue to the service he would render to his fellow citizens,’’ he said.
Smith said that no one at the ceremony can know the service that the new citizens may render the United States or the service that their children or grandchildren may render.
“I do know two things, however,’’ he said. “First, you will have the opportunity to render civic service as voters, taxpayers and active citizens. Second, your civic service is essential to the future of the American republic.’’
Smith thanked the new citizens for coming to the United States.
“We are better as a community and a nation because you are here, and we will be a better society in the future because of your presence,’’ he said.
Since its founding, the United States has been a nation of immigrants. The naturalization ceremony adjacent to the gardens that mark Ford’s birth site reflected the continued lure of America.
The ceremony included candidates from 25 countries: Benin, Burma, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Cuba, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Grenada, Guatemala, India, Iraq, Laos, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines, Romania, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Thailand and Vietnam.
In a 140-word oath of allegiance, they renounced allegiances to any foreign state, pledged to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and serve their nation in military and civilian roles when required.
The candidates came from homes and jobs across eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. Head scarves and abayas mingled with plaid shirts and blue jeans. Dresses and high heels mixed with suits and ties.
The candidates were among about 1,600 to 2,800 people who become citizens in Nebraska every year, said Ken Zarybnicky, an Omaha-based officer of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Iowa’s field office naturalized from 1,800 to 3,500 in each of the past five years. The agency’s Omaha field office organized the naturalization event at the Ford site.
Nearly 757,500 people became naturalized U.S. citizens in 2012. The leading countries of birth of new citizens were Mexico, the Philippines, India, the Dominican Republic and China.
The average annual number of people naturalizing increased from fewer than 120,000 during the 1950s and 1960s to 210,000 during the 1980s, 500,000 during the 1990s and to 680,000 between 2000 and 2009, according to federal statistics.
Until the 1970s, the majority of people naturalizing were born in European countries. The regional origin of new citizens sifted from Europe to Asia with the arrival of Indochinese refugees in the 1970s. Asia has been the leading region of origin of new citizens in most years since 1976.
Before taking the oath of allegiance, Noy Vilay of Council Bluffs, a 28-year-old immigrant from Laos, posed her parents and boyfriend in front of a photograph of Ford at the birth site garden.
Immediately after the oath, Omahan Bruce Rodeck, an immigrant from Canada, led the 49 other new citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Alhamadani said he and his wife came through years of struggle to reach America and become citizens.
“Since we arrived in the United States, so many great things have happened to us,” he said. “But this is the highlight of everything.’’
The Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center is located at 1326 S. 32nd St. An earlier version incorrectly stated the address.