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What it's like to become a US citizen

The Bill of Rights on display alongside the portraits of President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence inside the District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Photo credit: Maylan L. Studart

I was reborn as a U.S. citizen on August 28. I had been waiting for this moment since I was a little girl and it became within my reach when I came to America to pursue my professional jockey career (I’m now a journalist after experiencing a career-ending injury).

What made the day extra sweet was that I achieved this under President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump has tried to close America off to illegal and legal immigrants. There have been changes in visa processing, a proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, a travel ban on immigrants from six Middle East nations and the halving of refugee quotas.

“We now have a population of people living in fear that they will be deported soon, even though they followed all of the rules and applied for these appropriate statuses,” said Joseph W. Ingaharro of Ingaharro Law Office. “I feel that the immigration issue has become a political football and it is harming everyone, in one way or another.”

Despite all this, thousands of immigrants become American citizens every day. And I became one of them when I participated in a naturalization ceremony a federal courtroom in the Eastern District of New York in Long Island, N.Y. with 95 individuals from 33 different countries.

My road to U.S. citizenship

My story began in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where I was born. When I was 7 years old I moved to California, where I lived till I was 11. I was a typical young Jewish girl who grew up an American even before I was one. But when my stepfather passed away, our family returned to Brazil and the following three years were emotionally torturous for me as I was trying to adapt to a Brazilian culture I didn’t know. I was bullied in school for being “the American” and vowed to make it back home to the U.S. And my chosen career as a professional jockey was my ticket back.

In 2008, I came to Miami by myself on a P-1 visa for athletes and entertainers. My professional career as a jockey spanned nine years and in 2013, after renewing my visa for the second time, I got a permanent resident green card thanks to my immigration lawyer. But you can’t rush citizenship, no matter how good of a lawyer you have. Once you become a permanent resident, you must wait five years to become a citizen, three years if you get married to a U.S. citizen.

I gave myself a birthday present the day before March 10 when I applied to become a U.S. citizen. I used my credit card to pay $725 for the N-400 online application for naturalization after I reviewed the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website and confirmed I was eligible (different people become eligible through different circumstances, like marriage or fulfilling other requirements). The process was surprisingly quick and easy.

I was updated on the status of my application via e-mails and letters and just a couple weeks after I submitted the application I went to a USCIS office to get fingerprinted and pick up a study guide for the naturalization test and interview. The trip took 20 minutes.

The interview and naturalization test

Don’t let people scare you about the interview with a USCIS officer. It’s only a Q&A to confirm your eligibility, a 10-question verbal quiz about American history (you just need to get six out of 10 questions correct) and a quick written test that consists of writing one sentence (you have three chances to get it right) that the officer cites to you. The entire process took about 45 minutes. It could have been a lot faster if I wasn’t chit chatting with the officer.

The verbal quiz was so easy that I asked the officer, who happened to be a Cold War veteran who was in the counter-intelligence unit in Berlin in the 1960s, why it was so simple. He had a funny reply. He said “When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, he dumbed the test down to his level.”

The ceremony

I arrived early for the 8:30 a.m. naturalization ceremony. Each chair had a packet that included an FAQ about voting, our rights and responsibilities, and words to the Star-Spangled Banner, Pledge of Allegiance and Oath of Allegiance. Everyone had to surrender their green cards and immigration documents.

Judge Gary R. Brown, a third-generation Italian whose grandfather was a self-taught ship welder, presided over our ceremony. “It’s the best thing I get to do here,” said Judge Brown smiling referring to the swearing in ceremony. “People who come here are typically either going to jail or paying a fine, but this, this is like a wedding, everyone’s happy and we get to celebrate.”

Judge Brown also turned out to be a magician. He pulled an American flag out of a small silver box that before opened on all sides and seemed empty. “I’m glad it’s the right flag I pulled out of there this time,” he joked. “Welcome to your American dream.”

We then said the Pledge of Allegiance and the Oath of Allegiance with our right hands on our hearts. I had said the pledge countless times before, but this time the American flag looked different — welcoming and embracing. Halfway through the oath, my voice cracked and I could no longer hold back tears of joy. I made sure to pronounce all the words clearly despite my breaking voice and just took in the moment.

An immigrant holds a copy of the oath of allegiance to the United States before becoming an American citizen at a naturalization ceremony in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A few immigrants I met and their stories

I met Shima and Shina Susan Sunny, twins in their early-20s who hailed from Kerala, India, during the ceremony. They spent most of their lives going back and forth between India and the U.S. because their mother worked in America. After graduating college in their country two years ago, they permanently moved to Long Island to be with their mom.

Shima and Shina began their citizenship application process under President Barack Obama’s administration and went through a verification process different than mine. My citizenship came surprisingly quickly, only five months. It took the twins about two years.

The twins, registered nurses, said the Trump administration’s new policies didn’t change their minds about becoming a U.S. citizen. “It didn’t matter a lot, I’m pretty busy with my work and I don’t think it mattered at all,” Shima said.

Shima and Shina told me they are proud to be an American because they’re now a part of the process. “The United States has achieved a lot of great things and now I can say I’m a part of the United States,” Shina said.

Voughn Jarvy Celestino is a 23-year-old Filipino nurse who dreamt of visiting the Statue of Liberty as a young boy. His mother moved to the U.S. in 2012 to work as a nurse and Celestino had to stay home in Manila. Like Shima and Shina, he moved to New York to live with his mother when he turned 18 in 2013. The same day he arrived in America, he visited the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor with his mother. “It was a dream come true,” said Celestino.

Celestino graduated from Stony Brook University because his Filipino nursing degree didn’t count here. “Before I didn’t care about political stuff,” he said, adding that becoming a U.S. citizen opened his mind. “But now I have to be involved and I’m going to start voting because it’s our responsibility, it’s listed in the responsibilities and rights (of becoming a citizen).”

Becoming a U.S. citizen

Officially a U.S. citizen and proud of it. Photo credit: Maylan L. Studart

At the naturalization ceremony I could register to vote and apply for a U.S. passport. Court officers urged naturalized parents with children under the age of 18 to register their children as U.S. citizens before they left because it would cost them over $500 in application fees if they did it at a later time.

Registering to vote was at the top of my list. As soon as Shina, Shima, Voughn and I took our seats in the courtroom, two women representing the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County handed us voter registration forms and helped us fill them out. Nancy Olsen-Tank, one of the volunteers, was adamant about registering new citizens to vote. “If people don’t vote, democracy fails,” Olsen-Tank said. “Because this is how democracy works.”

“If you’re here, you want to be a part of it,” Shima said. “I couldn’t vote. Voting makes you a part of the process, you have a representative and can choose who represents you.”

I was taken aback by the helpfulness of the officials in the courtroom. We weren’t left to fend for ourselves like I had originally thought.

After the ceremony, I took my naturalization certificate in my hands and couldn’t control my emotions because I was walking out a U.S.citizen. That’s when something happened that I will cherish forever in my heart: Olsen-Tank was waiting for me by the door with open arms (like America was giving me a warm welcome). It was one of the most loving hugs I ever got. My mother, who still lives in Brazil with my brother and father, couldn’t be there with me but my mom would have thought that Olsen-Tank’s arms was a good replacement for hers that day.

At the end of the ceremony Shima and Shina wanted to “tell the world” about their new status. I did too, so I decided to take a photo under the portraits of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, alongside the American flag and share it on Instagram. Trump and Pence may look down on me, but America will always stand by me.

Maylan Studart is a reporter at Yahoo Finance.