As 130 people and their guests celebrated their citizenships Friday on St. Paul’s Harriet Island, a bald eagle perched in a tree.
“We’ve got good company this morning,” said Judge Donald D. Alsop, who led the naturalization ceremony held alongside the Mississippi River. Several in the crowd smiled at the coincidence of the nation’s symbol above them. Halfway through the ceremony, the eagle flew off, soaring along the river and away.
Friday’s ceremony demonstrated a nationwide increase in the number of people becoming U.S. citizens. Naturalization ceremonies are on a steady rise in Minnesota, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services public affairs officer Tim Counts said.
To work with the increase, the federal district courts in Minnesota have transitioned this year from biweekly courtroom oaths to larger ceremonies, often for hundreds or even thousands at a time.
In two ceremonies Saturday in the Mall of America rotunda in Bloomington, 125 people will be naturalized. Minnesota naturalizes 12,000 to 13,000 citizens yearly, Counts said.
“Just having to do a lot of smaller ceremonies was a lot of work,” Counts said. “It really wasn’t allowing us to keep up with the number of people who needed to be naturalized.”
Somalis have the highest naturalization rates in the state, Counts said, and Friday’s ceremony was no different: 19 people from Somalia were naturalized.
Laos, Liberia and Ethiopia also have high naturalization rates in Minnesota, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s most recent numbers. The group on Friday represented 42 countries.
During the ceremony, Alsop said he regretted not being able to shake the hands of all 130 people. Individual names weren’t read aloud; instead, people stood when their home country’s name was called.
The ceremony included words from U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and a previously-recorded video message from President Obama.
“The U.S. is unique because it’s the only nation in the world that everyone is created equal,” McCollum said.
‘You contribute to freedom’
Eric Marah, 27, of St. Paul, became a citizen on Friday. He came to the U.S. from Ghana in March 2012. In February, he joined the U.S. Army.
“You just contribute to freedom, like the president says,” he said, speaking to Obama’s message urging for civic impact.
Nana Afari III, 63, of Crystal, came from Ghana and became a citizen in 2008 to give his family a better chance of attaining citizenship. On Friday, he sat in the audience to watch his son, Prince Agyekum, 24, become naturalized. Agyekum said he’s looking forward to more job opportunities, as many jobs require U.S. citizenship.
Anthony Pham, 38, of St. Paul, swayed in his seat as “God Bless the U.S.A.” played, waving a miniature American flag.
Pham left his home country, Vietnam, for the promise of freedom. Pham’s grandfather died in the Vietnam War, and his father was arrested after the war. He said he wants to make an impact in the U.S. and travel with his new citizenship.
Pham broke into a grin when he received his certificate of citizenship.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time — to become a U.S. citizen,” he said.