On Wednesday morning, Jordanian immigrant Marwan Qandeel put on a white shirt with a patriotic tie featuring white stars on a blue background transitioning into red and white stripes flowing down the front. By the time Qandeel took that tie off, he would be as a U.S. citizen.
Thirty-one permanent residents from a cornucopia of countries took their oaths of citizenship and became Americans at a ceremony on the state Capitol lawn, a part of Raleighs Fourth of July celebration, held for the third year in a row.
Though all residents already, the 31 new citizens originally came from across the globe South Korea, Kenya, Myanmar, Great Britain, the Philippines and El Salvador, among others. They represent a sliver of 7,000 to 8,000 residents naturalized each year in the eastern half of the state.
I cannot describe it. Im so happy, said the 44-year-old Qandeel, who came to the U.S. 21 years ago on a visa. This is where I want to be.
Qandeel works as a chef at Pops Pizzeria in Chapel Hill and lives with his American wife of seven years, Kristi Page, and young son, Gabriel.
Page, a social worker in Chapel Hill, said the day was a long time coming.
Barriers persisted, she said. The couple hired an attorney and paid the fees and even contacted their Congressman. But she also said the processes got a lot better when an additional Immigration Services office opened up in Durham in 2008. Before, the entire state was funneled through one office in Charlotte. Qandeels successful application was initiated in January.
Jeffrey Sapko, director of the Durham office, said the additional office had been in the works for a while, but the Charlotte office was downsized before it opened, leading to backlogs. Now the Durham office handles all cases in 50 counties east of Greensboro.
That office serves everyone from a Coco-Cola employee from Ivory Coast to a refugee family from Myanmar. Sapko said the process is now much quicker and smoother now. He said a permanent resident who has lived in the U.S. for five years three with an American spouse can apply and gain citizenship in months by simply passing a background check as well as a civics and language test.
There are limited ways to become a permanent resident, he acknowledged. A family member or employer has to agree to sponsor such an immigrant. About 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers are also admitted nationwide each year.
The law is very specific, said Sapko, who stressed that immigration is at the core of the U.S. identity.
Those who got through the process expressed relief and joy at being officially declared American citizens. Those interviewed generally came to the U.S. for employment or to study, or to join family members who came looking for such opportunities.
For Peter Moss, citizenship served two purposes. He wanted to show a sign of support to a country he said has been good to him and his wife. After 31 years in the U.S., he also wanted to vote. The retired former Smithfield Foods employee met his American wife while a masters student at Southern Illinois, and they had lived in England before returning.
He acknowledged that the U.K. and U.S. share more similarities than differences in government among other areas. As for the core difference in his mind?
I think the church is still very important in the United States, and its not in Europe. Not just the U.K., but in all of Europe. Its not meaningful anymore, and thats a sad state of affairs in my opinion, he said after some thought.
And with illegal immigration a hot button issue in the U.S. on the heels of Obamas immigration directive, several of the new citizens expressed relief that they had done things through legal channels.
I can see that perspective of why somebody would want to (come illegally), Page said. But were so happy now that there is no concern or worry or anything on our part, and to know weve done things the right way.