By Becky Bratu, msnbc.com
NEW YORK – A tense silence came over the wood-paneled courtroom as about 160 naturalization petitioners and their guests awaited the arrival of federal District Judge Barbara S. Jones.
They were all minutes away from becoming U.S. citizens, the culmination of an immigration process that can take several years.
Sitting in the front row and wearing the red, white and blue dress uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps, 23-year-old David Wen Riccardi-Zhu watched the door that led to the judge’s quarters. Half-Chinese, half-Italian, he was about to be the first one in his family to become a U.S. citizen. Born in Naples, Italy, Riccardi-Zhu moved to New York with his parents and brother 16 years ago.
“I’ve been waiting for this for so long,” he said, adding that he was particularly excited about voting for the first time.
The crowd stood as Judge Jones entered the room. Right hands were raised and a chorus of voices began reciting the Oath of Allegiance.
From a war-torn land
A week ago, 32-year-old Nazia Hadle was one of these voices.
Born in Afghanistan, Hadle became an American citizen, joining thousands naturalized all over the country this week, ahead of Independence Day.
“Finally, I made it,” she said.
For Hadle there is no looking back to her life in war-torn Afghanistan. While her homeland is still reeling from the terrorist attack this week on a hotel in Kabul, she is looking forward to bringing her children, Sarah, 7, and Yusef, 1, to see the Independence Day fireworks in Manhattan.
In 1999, Hadle fled her town in northern Afghanistan, where she taught English, to escape the war she had known her whole life. She was granted asylum in the U.S., and in 2006 she became a permanent resident.
That was two years after she learned her father had died in Afghanistan, and her remaining relatives had moved to Canada.
“Now I got nothing (in Afghanistan),” Hadle said. “And there’s always war.”
Long haul to citizenship
According to federal statistics, more than 675,000 citizens were naturalized in fiscal year 2010. U.S. citizenship law requires foreign nationals to live in the U.S. legally for five years, pass an interview, a citizenship test and a background check to become Americans.
With help from her daughter and an immigration counselor at Brooklyn’s Catholic Migration Office, Hadle submitted her application in December.
“I love the freedom here,” she said, “although I don’t get 100 percent freedom.” Since 9/11, Hadle said, she’s noticed people are more likely to have a negative reaction when they hear she’s an Afghan.
And Frederik Stefani, the immigration counselor who assisted Hadle with her case, said the security clearance for naturalization applications submitted by Afghans as well as citizens of various Middle Eastern nations tends to take longer than for other foreign nationals.
Now, as her Afghan husband prepares his own citizenship application, Hadle hopes her new status will help. The new American wants to one day resume her teaching career.
'Waited a long time for this day'
“I know that many of you have waited a long time for this day,” Judge Jones told the newly minted citizens standing in the lower Manhattan courthouse on Friday. “You are the new blood that strengthens and invigorates this country.”
The right hands were raised again, this time to the heart, as the chorus recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Standing to the right of Riccardi-Zhu, a Russian-born woman who’s lived in the U.S. for 15 years wiped a tear from the corner of her right eye.
The ceremony over, each new citizen walked to the front of the courtroom to receive a certificate confirming their new status. An elderly man stopped to read the paper and smiled. As people exited the courtroom, a courthouse employee congratulated them in various languages. Even the ladies’ restroom was abuzz with excitement, as a bathroom attendant congratulated a woman.
“I got my citizenship 32 years ago,” the attendant said in Spanish. “Citizenship is a very good thing.”
Eric Grigorian / Polaris
More than 8,000 people take the oath this week in Los Angeles to become new U.S. citizens.