Pensacola City Hall was packed Friday morning as 83 people from more than 40 different countries stood up and took the Oath of Allegiance to become U.S. citizens.
Emotions were elevated for the naturalization ceremony. Friends and families cheered for their loved ones, new citizens cried tears of joy and snapped selfies with small American flags. It was a day of pride for some citizens who spent years getting to get to that moment.
“I came here for freedom and a better life,” said Viviamne Sierra, who is originally from Cuba. “I came here from Venezuela as a refugee…this is everything. I’m so excited I don’t have words.”
Some citizens came to the U.S. for work opportunities or to be united with families. Some fled war-torn countries in hopes of a better life.
Representing Friday morning's group was Eunice Dahn, who spoke about her experience leaving Liberia for the U.S. Her and her husband, Gnehkewon, saved what little extra money they had each month to pay for their one-way trip to the U.S. They came to Northwest Florida, where Gnehkewon studied at Pensacola Christian College. Eventually they founded their own ministry to serve people in Liberia.
"We never gave up on our dream," Eunice said addressing the room. "We are grateful to God today to be citizens of America."
Immigration is a hotly debated topic around the country — even United States District Judge Roger Vinson made note of it during the ceremony. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced his plan to overhaul the entire system by prioritizing certain education and employment qualifications. On Friday, it was reported that Kenneth T. Cuccinelli is expected to be the the President’s pick to replace L. Francis Cissna as head of United States Citizenship and immigration Services.
“I think some people are unaware of how hard it is to come here legally,” said Maria Cardoso. “It’s hard and expensive. And we came to the U.S. with privilege. We already had degrees.”
Despite the national conversation, it didn’t put a damper on the day’s celebration. Maria and her husband Nicolau even shared a kiss after reciting the Oath of Alligiance.
The couple came to the U.S. from Brazil. With their student visas, they went to University of West Florida to get their master’s degrees and both now work for Escambia County School system. Maria works in special education and Nicolau is a physical education instructor. After living in the U.S. for more than 20 years and raising children, they became U.S. citizens.
“I didn’t think I would feel different,” Maria admitted. “But (after the ceremony) I feel a sense of validation.”
Now as citizens, Maria said she’s looking forward to one day adopting a child — something she and Nicolau could not do before.
As the guest speaker, Mayor Grover Robinson shared the story of his great-great-grandfather, a sailor from Ireland who was dropped off in Bagdad, Florida when he injured his leg and unable to work on the ship.
“In one way or another, we’ve all come from somewhere else,” Robinson said. “We’re not bound by common ethnicity, or a common language. We’re bound by a rule of law. We’re very happy you’re in Northwest Florida. The opportunity is yours.”
Voting will also be a badge of honor for the new citizens. And some were enthusiastically ready to register. Escambia County Supervisor of Elections and Escambia County Tax Collectors Office were ready with information right outside the city council chambers.
Even though you can register online, Paris Melville of Brazil took her paperwork and filled it out on site.
“It took me almost six years to get here,” she said. “I feel very proud. I’m ready to vote now.”
For others, the perks of being a U.S. citizen are the “little things,” said Bia Thomas.
“When I go to visit (family) in Thailand, coming home my husband and I would have to go separate ways in the airport,” she said. “Now, we won’t have to split up. They’ll just look at my passport and say ‘Welcome Home.’”