America gained 39 new citizens Saturday during a special naturalization ceremony coinciding with Independence Day and Baltimore's Monumental Bicentennial.
Citizenship candidates from 26 countries, some with tears in their eyes, held American flags as they recited the Oath of Allegiance during the morning ceremony at the Engineer's Club in Mount Vernon.
Greg Collett, district director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said he performs up to two naturalization ceremonies a day, but the intersection of Independence Day and the reopening of Baltimore's Washington Monument gave added significance to the event.
"It's really meaningful. I've been doing this for almost 27 years, and I still get choked up when I do it," Collett said.
"Just seeing the joy, the pride they have in this county and to be a citizen is very symbolic of what today is all about, as well as this monument," he said.
For Isle Argueta, who gained citizenship at the ceremony, becoming an American is "an exciting new beginning."
Argueta, 24, said that every Fourth of July, she wakes up early to listen to a mix CD of patriotic songs to celebrate one of her favorite holidays. The Guatemalan immigrant said she has officially lived more than half her life in America, and becoming naturalized on Independence Day was the perfect way to commemorate the occasion.
Argueta said she is now looking forward to voting, traveling with an American passport and even serving jury duty – an experience many natural-born Americans dread.
"You get to voice your opinion, represent something and hopefully make justice happen, which is important," she said.
Heather E. Harris, 51, who came to the U.S. from Canada in 1994, said her main motivation for citizenship was the power of the election process.
"I want to vote," she said. "We may be getting a woman in the White House, and I want to cast a ballot."
Now a professor at Stevenson University, Harris said she came to America for an education at Howard University, where she received a full scholarship for five out of six years of school.
"It's a miracle," she said of her education and life in the United States. "America has been very good to me."
Harris, who earned her master's degree and doctorate from Howard, said her mother came to the U.S. as a domestic worker, and her father worked as a laborer.
"This is very special to me because I know the sacrifices they made in order for me to have these opportunities," she said.
Ramachandram Badugu, 45, who moved to the States from India in 2003, said he has been in Baltimore longer than he has lived in any other place, and the city now feels like home.
An assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Badugu said he has proven himself useful to his adopted country as a leading researcher in the field of biochemistry and molecular biology, and he plans to continue to demonstrate his worth as a citizen.
"I will have a better future, and my kids will have a better future," said Badugu, who has two daughters, ages 11 and 14.
The naturalization ceremony was intended to be held at the Washington Monument as part of ceremonies marking the landmark's 200th birthday and reopening after renovations, but Saturday morning's rain moved the event to the Engineer's Club. Despite light showers, other events went on as planned at the monument, including a ribbon-cutting, tours and a festival.
The monument had been closed since 2010 to undergo a renovation costing nearly $6 million. Its cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1815.