As Lievinne Mongu listened to the speakers at her naturalization ceremony, she reflected on her 14-year journey — from fear in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo to asylum in the United States, a home in Silver Spring and a job with the International Monetary Fund in Washington.
She beamed throughout Friday's ceremony at the William Paca House & Garden in Annapolis. And after standing up, raising her right hand and reciting the oath of citizenship, she said she wished that others around the world could feel what she was feeling.
"I have been waiting for this day," Mongu said. "Why can we not give this chance to everybody? It's a great country. It's a country of opportunity. I really support that everyone have the same chance I had."
Mongu was one of 37 immigrants who became citizens at the ninth annual Fourth of July naturalization ceremony hosted by Historic Annapolis at the Paca House.
The event, and others like it across the country Friday, came amid rising concern over a surge in illegal immigration and the long stalemate in Washington over a way to fix a system that all sides agree is broken.
"The basic idea of welcoming immigrants to our shores is central to our way of life," President Barack Obama said during a naturalization ceremony at the White House. "We believe our diversity, our differences, when joined together by a common set of ideals, makes us stronger, makes us more creative, makes us different."
But Obama has come under fire from both sides. Republicans point to the more than 52,000 unaccompanied children who have been apprehended on the southwestern U.S. border with Mexico since last fall and say they were lured north by inadequate security. GOP critics say they don't trust Obama to enforce existing laws.
Advocates for immigrants, meanwhile, fault Obama as the "deporter in chief" who has sent back hundreds of thousands who crossed the border illegally.
Obama has acknowledged that his efforts to win congressional approval for a bipartisan, comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws have failed. He says he will now try to impose change through executive orders.
"We shouldn't be making it harder for the best and the brightest to come here, and create jobs here, and grow our economy here," he said Friday. "We should be making it easier. And that's why I'm going to keep doing ... everything I can do to keep making our immigration system smarter and more efficient."
Historic Annapolis President Robert C. Clark said it was fitting that "we welcome new citizens into the American family" at the Paca House each year on the Fourth of July, because it's the day that Paca himself — as a signer of the Declaration of Independence — became a U.S. citizen.
Maria Contreras-Sweet, head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, teared up as she spoke of the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. She described her own journey as a child from Guadalajara, Mexico, to California, where she held executive positions in several firms and was the state's secretary of business, transportation and housing before joining Obama's Cabinet.
The candidates for citizenship came from 29 countries. Requirements for eligibility include five years in the country as a lawful permanent resident, an attachment to the principles of the Constitution, good moral character, knowledge of U.S. history and government, and proficiency in English.
Mongu said she was looking forward to "participating in democracy" — not only voting, she said, but possibly joining a political party and volunteering in campaigns.
Opeolu Olorunsola and his wife, Mulikat, came to the United States from Nigeria in 2008 after winning a visa lottery. They now work as state corrections officers and are raising two young sons, both born here.
"If you want to come in, you have to come in legally, not illegally," Opeolu said. "When you come in legally, you have opportunities to become anything you want to become."
But when people have entered the country illegally and built lives here over a period of years, the Olorunsolas said, the government shouldn't just send them back.
"When we came in, we knew we were coming to stay," Mulikat said. "So we had to sell everything; we gave away everything we had.
"If you send someone back after that, you're making them start over from scratch. That's what's happening to most of these people. They can't go back. They just want to survive."
She said she favored creating a status that would allow people who have entered the country illegally to live and work here legally. Otherwise, she said, some will turn to crime.
"I know what it is to be here," she said. "We came here with green cards, and we're still struggling. It's harder for someone who has no papers to show."
Zainab Jalloh, who came to the United States legally from Sierra Leone in 2007, is a nursing student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She compares her experience to that of a high school friend who was brought here illegally at the age of 5.
Her friend earned good grades in high school, Jalloh said, but without legal status, is working and has had difficulty advancing to college.
"She's super-smart, but she's not able to go to school," said Jalloh, 19. "She didn't have a choice. She was brought here by her parents. I think if someone has been in America for that long, they should have some kind of right to go to school. They should have the right to finish their education."
Josline Ali-Napo, 20, a psychology student at the University of Maryland, College Park, said young people present a "really sticky situation."
"It's always better to do it legally," said Ali-Napo, who was a year old when her parents brought her to the United States from Togo. "The young people who came here with their parents, they should look at it on a case-by-case basis. … Now they're in the country and they've been here for such a long time. And they're having problems getting into school and such."
Tribune Newspapers reporter Christi Parsons contributed to this article.