Originally created 09/30/03

Dozens of immigrant soldiers become citizens in all-military ceremony



ATLANTA -- Sgt. Cheryl Williams waited more than three years for this day to come.

After serving in the U.S. Army for more than a decade, the native-born Jamaican finally got to pledge her allegiance to the American flag - as a naturalized citizen.

Williams, who is stationed at Fort Stewart, joined about 70 other Georgia soldiers in an all-military ceremony Monday, where soldiers from 36 different countries took their oath of citizenship for a country most of them recently defended in Iraq.

"Your service in the military of the United States, your willingness to endure the rigors of the program and having the courage to venture into the territory of American's complex culture and society brings new values to the American life and experience," Maj. Gen. Charles E. Wilson, deputy commanding general of the Army Reserve Command, told the newly sworn-in citizens.

"You bring honor, courage, resolve and high expectations for the continued success of this nation."

Williams, 34, said the issue of citizenship never really came up during her career as a battalion food operations agent because her Jamaican accent had softened since she came to the country in 1981 with her mother, who was looking for better job opportunities.

"Nobody ever noticed, 'You're Jamaican. You need to do this,"' she said.

Williams didn't begin the process of applying for citizenship until June 2001, after realizing that non-citizens were not eligible to be promoted or to even serve in the military for more than eight years.

After more than a year of paperwork and phone calls, she had to start much of the process over again when her background check expired during her deployment to Iraq this year.

For many others, Monday's oath was long-awaited, after they had served overseas for months.

Rosemary L. Melville, district director of the Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship Services, said the all-military event was rare for the agency, which swears in new citizens on a daily basis, but officials decided to hold a larger ceremony because a number of immigrant soldiers had recently returned from the Persian Gulf.

Last July, President Bush issued an executive order making all soldiers immediately eligible for citizenship, billing the order as a reward to those serving during the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism. During peacetime, soldiers are required to serve for three years before applying for citizenship.

There are about 50,000 non-citizens currently serving - about 4 percent of the U.S. military, Wilson said.

Melville encouraged the newly sworn-in men and women, who represented countries from Uganda to the United Kingdom, to exercise every right granted to them under citizenship.

"The best way to participate in government is to have your voice count," Melville said. "Unfortunately, too many people in the U.S. - usually people born in the U.S. - are too nonchalant about the issues.

"The only limitation is that you can't be the president of the United States," she added. "But you can be governor of California if you set your sights."

On the Net:

Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services: http://www.immigration.gov