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On grave 9/11 anniversary, immigrants commemorate new lives as US citizens

David GrantThe Christian Science Monitor

What a difference 11 years makes.

Ibrahim Kamara came to the United States from Sierra Leone in August 2001, hoping to get an education and escape his nation’s decade-long civil war.

Just two weeks later, he watched the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks on television in Texas. “It was scary,” says Mr. Kamara. “The fact that I just came from a war – I felt like I was going to come into another one.”

But between two bright, crisp fall days 11 years apart, Kamara obtained a business degree, a good job as a bank teller, and, after a ceremony Tuesday night, US citizenship. He was one of 26 new US citizens from 20 countries naturalized at a special ceremony in Alexandria, Va., with the director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Alejandro Mayorkas and Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, in attendance. In some half dozen interviews with the Monitor, the new US citizens voiced worries about the economy and expressed their joy about being able to work for the US government, among other professional aspirations. And they were also all fired up to do something many Americans see as a chore: vote. All 26 soon-to-be citizens were handed voter registration forms, and many filled them out on the spot, reserving one small detail for after the ceremony: they couldn’t sign the forms attesting to their US citizenship until taking the oath of allegiance. “More than anything, it’s that your vote is counted now,” says Gina Bonura, a Colombian immigrant who lives in Bristow, Va. “A country where you feel you were a part of it before you become a citizen, you’re not counted. But now you are.” The new citizens at the ceremony represent only a tiny fraction of the immigrants who gain US citizenship every year – nearly 600,000 were naturalized through the end of June, according to USCIS. That figure, however, shows how far the US has come since 2001, when more than 613,000 immigrants were naturalized for the whole year. Between 2002 and 2005, the number dipped as low as a shade over 450,000 before rising back to 600,000 as immigration slowed due to tighter immigration rules, among other concerns. Special naturalization ceremonies aren’t new for Mr. Mayorkas, who himself became a US citizen in 1972, but having such a ceremony on 9/11 was of added importance. “It adds special meaning to the day. Look where we are,” referring to the ceremony’s close proximity to the Pentagon, Mayorkas said in an interview. “We have the flags at half mast, it definitely adds some solemnity to the day, but it is a day of celebrating citizenship.” While the day’s solemn character was a cause for reflection among all those who talked to the Monitor, the group of new citizens was brimming with one eternal American quality: optimism. Gracie Macasieb, who came to the US from the Philippines in 2002, would become a citizen a day before her 76th birthday. She says she came to the United States to see her four children prosper. “It’s like a wheel, it turns,” Macasieb says. “We are down [at the bottom of the wheel] but we have nowhere to go but up.”