New citizens reflect on what the United States and the celebration of its independence mean to them.
For years, Shaneeta Mehta stood in a separate line from her American-born daughters at the airport, waiting to re-enter the country after traveling overseas.
Mehta, who grew up in Uganda and England before immigrating to the United States, lived here for 20 years before the choice became so clear.
Standing at the airport, she looked over at the line for American citizens and thought, "I want to be one as well."
"It wasn't until I started traveling that I realized that this was something that I really wanted," said Mehta, who will join hundreds of other Minnesotans in becoming U.S. citizens at a naturalization ceremony July 6 at Bethel University. "It meant a lot after traveling and realizing what the rest of the world is like. I realized the importance of being part of a culture and a society which gives so many opportunities to everyone."
For these new Americans, the Fourth of July has special meaning this year.
Becoming a citizen is a defining moment not only for the ones taking the oath of allegiance, but for their descendants, said John Keller, an attorney with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota in St. Paul. He's helped hundreds of immigrants apply for citizenship over the years.
At any given naturalization ceremony, he said, there are people from 70 or more countries represented, and emotions run high.
"Citizenship is the happiest of all the cases," he said. "It's that final step when people are home in every sense of the word. It's that final step of saying, 'This is where we'll be; this is our new home; this is where the future of my branch of the family tree will take root.'"
From Mexico to St. Paul
Josefina Ramos received her citizenship certificate at a ceremony June 22.
Ramos, who is a native of Mexico and now lives in St. Paul, works at the airport shining shoes.
A green card holder, she has been living in Minnesota since 1989. "I'm very happy," said Ramos, who is keeping her certificate next to her family photo albums. "It's a very good country. I have the opportunity for everything."
Her husband, Manuel Ramos, a school bus driver, became a U.S. citizen in 2004.
From England to North Oaks
Mehta was born in Uganda to parents from India. But she never lived in India and when she was a teenager, she and her family moved to England.
"Really, I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere," she said, laughing.
After she married, Mehta joined her husband in the United States. They settled in Minnesota, had two daughters and built a life over 23 years.
Studying for the citizenship exam taught her much about U.S. history and values.
Asked what America means to her, Mehta paused and recited words from the Declaration of Independence.
"Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," she said. "When I read those words, I thought, 'That's exactly what it's all about.' It applies to everyone."
In the past, she spent the Fourth of July watching fireworks with family and her North Oaks neighbors.
"July Fourth has always been a celebration. But I think I'll feel it more this year," she said. "The opportunities that you feel here are so different than anywhere else. You feel very proud. Those holidays have come to mean a lot for our family."
The festivities will continue on July 6, the day she becomes a citizen. Mehta is planning to have a party that evening to celebrate.
From Liberia to Minneapolis
Comfort Meh will throw a party, too.
She also will take the oath of allegiance July 6 and has invited church members and family over to her northeast Minneapolis apartment to celebrate.
Meh is originally from Liberia and works as an aide in a group home for mentally disabled people.
To her, the United States is a place where you can follow your dreams.
"This is a land, if you make up your mind about who you want to be, you can be who you want to be," she said. "If you fight hard for what you want, you will get it. They are always willing to help."
Like Mehta, she has lived in the United States for decades as a green card holder.
She chose to take the final step and become an American officially, because, she said, it just made sense.
"I already feel like a citizen. My home is here."
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488