TEXARKANA — Sixty people became naturalized United States citizens Friday in a historic bi-state ceremony downtown.
A pair of federal judges presided over the proceedings, believed to be the first naturalization ceremony conducted jointly by two district courts. District Judge Robert Schroeder of the Eastern District of Texas and Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant of the Western District of Arkansas administered the Oath of Allegiance to the new citizens of their respective states. The ceremony took place in a unique location, in front of the only federal courthouse bisected by a state line.
"Today's the happiest thing we do in federal court," Bryant told the new citizens, their families and other well-wishers gathered outdoors on a hot, breezy morning.
Bryant emphasized the important contributions immigrants make economically and culturally.
"This country needs immigrants. America needs new people. Immigrants are the strength of this nation," Bryant said.Gallery: New citizens take oath in historic Texarkana ceremony
Those taking the oath came from 21 countries, including Belarus, China, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico and Yemen. Each received a Certificate of Naturalization. Bryant handed certificates to 24 new citizens, and Schroeder handed certificates to 36.
Two of the new citizens spoke to the audience about their immigration journeys.
Petr Kandidatov, from Russia, an employee of Southern Arkansas University, said his story "is in no way special." He first came to the U.S. as an exchange student and later got a green card to work with international students at SAU. He cited the support of his wife and best friend.
Blanca Story, from Spain, is a high school teacher from Tyler, Texas, who has been a permanent U.S. resident since 1987. She only recently decided to join her two children and two grandchildren as a citizen.
"I love the Constitution and that it starts with 'We the people,'" Story said.
Other new citizens shared their stories, as well.
Grace Hall, 40, from the Philippines, said she was "thrilled" to become a citizen after a process that took four and a half years. In that time she began a nursing career in the U.S. and hopes that her new status will make bringing her child here easier.
Shazia Sultana, from Pakistan, said she has been in the U.S. for 30 years and has two children born here. She smiled and said her new citizenship "feels good."
Teresa Barba, a 23-year-old new American, said she moved from Mexico with her parents to the U.S. 13 years ago.
"I feel like this is home," Barba said.
Barba said her parents relocated to America for work and economic opportunity and said that she will vote in the next election.
Ron Latina said he moved from the Philippines 11 years ago because of family. Latina said he is currently studying political science and public administration at University of Central Arkansas and that his plans include law school. Latina said his new status as an American citizen will allow him to be a bigger part of his community and like many others, mentioned the right to vote that comes with citizenship.
Vanessa Osborne said it was hard to leave her home country of Nicaragua nine years ago but has a new life in America she loves.
"I got married. I'm building a family," Osborne said.
The event's keynote speaker, local resident and naturalized citizen Gabe Tarr, escaped from communist Hungary with his father and brother in 1956, eventually settling in the Dallas area. Tarr held up a copy of his naturalization certificate and said he still remembers the day when a federal judge handed him the document and warned him to protect it. Tarr said he keeps the original in a safe. Tarr, an electrical engineer, encouraged the new Americans to vote, take advantage of educational opportunities and improve their English language skills.
Immigration is how "we replenish the ingredients of the great melting pot," Schroeder said.
He encouraged the new immigrants to continue their studies of America's history "filled with stories of immigrants." Schroeder also urged the immigrants to answer and serve if summoned for jury service, to exercise their new right to vote in American, state and local elections and acknowledged that as U.S. citizens they enjoy religious freedom and freedom of speech. Schroeder pointed to a tent where election officials from local offices in Texas and Arkansas stood at the ready to register the new Americans to vote.
"America needs your talents, culture and diversity," Schroeder said. "This nation of immigrants will become even stronger with you."
Texas-side Mayor Bob Bruggeman and Arkansas-side City Manager Kenny Haskin were among local officials in attendance. Schroeder read a congratulatory letter from U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
The Texarkana, Arkansas, Police Department provided a color guard for the event. Candace Taylor Bougie sang the National Anthem, and student Olivia Jarrell sang "God Bless America." Students from Leary Middle School took a field trip to attend the ceremony.
Schroeder thanked a number of court staff, both Texarkana police departments, the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Texarkana Bar Association, Texarkana Rotary Club, Texarkana College, Texarkana Emergency Center and the Texas High School Leadership Club for helping plan, coordinate and execute the event. Schroeder thanked Texarkana doctor Stacy Leonard Carter for providing an apple pie for each new citizen and noted the presence of a number of community leaders.
"This is such an exciting day. To see so many people become American citizens and contribute to the life of our country is priceless," Schroeder said. "We had a lot of fun working on this event. It is a privilege to be involved and meet these new citizens and their families."
Where did the new citizens come from?