Xochitl Flores sat among fellow members of the Yakima Valley Community Band on Wednesday, flute in hand, as they performed patriotic selections for a naturalization ceremony in the William O. Douglas Federal Building.
The songs stirred some of the 23 people who became U.S. citizens that day to wave small American flags or tap their fingers to the beat, their faces beaming. Flores, who was born in Mexico and became an American citizen 13 years ago, felt their joy, too.
“It was emotional,” she said of her own naturalization ceremony in a first-floor courtroom of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Washington. “I never thought I would be having the same experience again.”
On Wednesday, the normally somber second-floor courtroom, the scene of federal hearings and trials and sentencings, held a standing-room-only crowd of excited children and adults eager to applaud for the band and the new citizens.
Magistrate Judge Mary Dimke presided over the ceremony and administered the Oath of Allegiance to citizenship candidates hailing from 10 countries — Argentina, Canada, China, Columbia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Iraq, Mexico, the Philippines and Ukraine.
They were among nearly 7,500 new citizens being celebrated in nearly 110 naturalization ceremonies throughout the country this week, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“One thing that makes our country great is its diversity. Today we celebrate that diversity,” Dimke said. “Congratulations and welcome.”
Becoming an American citizen can take years. The multistep process begins with submitting an application and paying a $725 fee. Among other requirements for citizenship, immigrants must be 18 or older, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years as lawful permanent residents (or three years for those married to a U.S. citizen), and be in good standing with the law.
Adding to that, some immigrants must first become literate in their own language while also learning English.
“You have earned the right to be here today through your hard work, through determination and your patience,” Dimke said. “Those qualities will serve you well as American citizens.”
Family and friends held cellphones — normally forbidden in federal court — for photos and video. After Dimke administered the Oath of Allegiance to the entire group, each new citizen came forward individually for a certificate.
The Yakima Valley Community Band sat in seats usually occupied by jurors during the half-hour event. The band is 100 years old this year, a noteworthy fact mentioned early in the ceremony. Guests also learned about Flores’ special connection to the celebration.
Flores came to the United States in 1992 at age 26 for a better life, she said. America offers opportunities for its people to better themselves and compete on the same level with others throughout the world.
She became a U.S. citizen in 2006. Three years ago Flores, who had played the flute since she was 15, earned a music degree from Central Washington University. She works as a substitute teacher.
“It was important to be able to embrace the whole culture. They had given me so much,” it was time for her to give back as an American citizen, Flores said.
Heeding Dimke’s call for new citizens to exercise their right to vote, Hasmukh and Rekha Mistry took a few minutes to fill out related paperwork after the ceremony. They and another couple received American citizenship together.
Married for 44 years, the Mistrys have three daughters and live in Kennewick. They are originally from India and moved to Canada, where they received citizenship before moving to the United States about 23 years ago. That began with the hotel business in Umatilla, Ore.
“We got naturalized quite late,” Hasmukh Mistry said. “We bought a business in Umatilla and next thing we know, we have spent 23 years here.”
“We like Umatilla and Washington state, especially East Washington,” he said.