Claire Angelle didn’t have to venture too far from work Friday when it was finally time for her to become an American citizen.
She just left her desk in the city’s Office of International Affairs and walked downstairs to the atrium, where she and 18 others said the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time as naturalized Americans.
“Being naturalized here in City Hall means so much to me,” said Angelle, who moved to this country in 2007 from Nantes, France, and serves as Atlanta’s director of international affairs. “And the biggest part is being awarded the right to vote on Election Day. I am very excited.”
As light drenched the City Hall Atrium, 19 people — born in places like Argentina, Bangladesh, Iran, Nigeria and Vietnam — placed their hands over their hearts during the National Anthem, before raising their hands for the first time as Americans during the pledge.
“These are 19 folks with 19 different journeys,” said Brett Rinehart, who heads the Atlanta field office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees legal immigration in the region.
“This is my 20th year as an immigration officer and every time, during one of these ceremonies, when I hear the words, ‘So help me God,’ I am moved,” he said, referring to the closing of the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance.
For the 19 new citizens, the upcoming election loomed large.
Immigration has played a major role in the tone of the presidential campaign, with candidates debating the morality and practicality of building walls along the Mexican border and banning Muslims from entering the country.
Still, more that 7,000 new citizens will be naturalized across America between June 30 and July 4, to mark Independence Day, said Laura Patching, chief of the Office of Citizenship for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. And nationally, there has been a 20 percent increase in naturalizations this quarter. Rinehart said between Georgia and Alabama, his office will naturalize 26,000 people this year.
For Bangaly Diane, who moved to the United States in 1998 from Guinea, and was joined by his whole family – including his four American-born children – becoming a citizen at this time was crucial.
“I’m Muslim. And I love being a Muslim, because it is a beautiful religion,” said Diane, who works as a delivery driver. “I work hard to support my family and now I am an American citizen. Now I am going to go out and vote for the next president.”
Maribel Tavera is also keenly interested in voting in the upcoming presidential election. She moved to the United States 17 years ago from Mexico City. Her two daughters were born in the United States.
“With this, there is so much more that I can do. I am finishing my GED and looking forward to getting my college degree,” Tavera said. “But I am also ready to vote as a citizen. It is important for all of us Latinos to be able to vote and show how strong we are. The way some politicians think about Mexico is not right and not fair.”
For Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who hosted the ceremony – complete with red, white and blue Coke cans – the ceremony packed an additional emotional punch.
Reed told the new citizens that while their stories were “special, hard-earned and meaningful,” he had special feelings for two of those naturalized.
In addition to Angelle, he also shook the hand of Nicholas Church, the husband of Reed’s first campaign communications director, Reese McCranie.
He attended their wedding in September 2014 at the Jefferson Memorial.
“I’m so proud to be a part of this ceremony. I am so proud of the United States of America,” Reed said. “As July 4th approaches, I can’t think of what else I’d rather being doing right now.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com