Born of Burmese parents in a Thai refugee camp, Paw Da Eh grew up without a country. That changed Tuesday for Paw, who was one of 36 sworn in as newly naturalized U.S. citizens in a ceremony at Richfield City Hall.

“I feel so happy, so good, so excited,” said Paw, a 22-year-old Roseville resident and student at St. Paul College. “I had no country, no rights. I can’t describe what I feel right now.”

Immigration has emerged this year as a controversial political issue. But U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, who presided over the ceremony and swore in the new citizens, made it clear where he stood.

“We are a better country now than we were five minutes ago,” said Frank, noting that three of his five daughters are naturalized citizens. “We are better with you than without you.”

The new citizens represented 18 native countries. They’re among the approximately 12,000 U.S. citizens who will be naturalized this year in Minnesota.

Modou Sowe, a 53-year-old Minnetonka resident, called America “a great country” and said it was the best place to live.

“I feel very happy and proud to be an American,” said Sowe, a native of the Gambia, a west African nation. “We have free speech. You can say whatever you believe. Not like where I come from.”

Nyazoli Biel Tang, 25, arrived from Ethiopia to join her husband, Peter Ngor, who was already a citizen.

“I’m feeling very happy,” she said. “I want to be free to vote.”

The naturalization ceremony was the first ever held in Richfield but it won’t be the last, city officials said. The city has a long history of welcoming immigrants, said Mayor Debbie Goettel, going back to the Norwegian and German farmers who settled the area in the 19th century.

“You’re going to add a lot of vibrancy and beauty and culture to our community,” she said.

The new citizens each received a packet with their citizenship certificate, copies of the nation’s founding documents, a voter registration form and a small American flag. They also got a televised recorded greeting from President Obama.

“I am proud to welcome you as a new citizen of this country,” Obama said. “We are united by the principles of opportunity, equality and liberty.”