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In Fourth of July ceremony, 22 immigrants become U.S. citizens

Teresa Nieves-Chinchilla returned last week from a trip to her home country of Spain, where her two children will spend the summer.

In her mailbox was a long-awaited letter granting a dream — she could finally become an American citizen.

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Nieves-Chinchilla has been in the U.S. for 11 years, studying space weather and solar activity for the Catholic University of America's Institute for Astrophysics and Computational Sciences, located at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

"When I saw the letter in my mailbox, the first feeling was, 'Oh my God, finally,'" said Nieves-Chinchilla, 44, of Olney.

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"This country gave me the opportunity to be a scientist, to make my life," she said. "Eleven years is a lot of years and it's my home, my family, my life. I feel I belong to this country."

Nieves-Chinchilla was one of 22 people from 16 countries who took the Oath of Allegiance for naturalized citizens in a ceremony at the William Paca House on Tuesday. It was the 12th year Annapolis has held a naturalization ceremony on the Fourth of July, and dozens of local residents wearing red, white and blue joined families and friends of the new citizens to watch.

The new citizens came from countries including Kenya, Pakistan, Iran, Estonia and South Korea. Each was presented with a naturalization certificate by James McCament, acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

All of them had undergone a process that includes submission of an application and other documents, completion of English and citizenship testing and interviews by USCIS officials on their way to becoming citizens.

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"It's a culmination of the immigrant journey," McCament said. "These folks have switched their country, their homeland, come here, walked through our process and they're going to be now contributing to the future of the United States of America."

Having the ceremony on the Fourth of July is "particularly special," he added.

About 15,000 people became naturalized citizens in ceremonies across the country on the Fourth of July, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In Maryland, about 20,000 immigrants become citizens each year.

Junsheng Eye, who graduated this spring with a degree in economics from the University of Maryland, College Park, said becoming a citizen would make it a lot easier for him to find his first job. Eye, who came to the U.S. from China his freshman year of high school, hopes to forge a career in data analysis.

"Now that I'm a citizen, I want to do my part for society, hopefully become an asset instead of a liability for the country and for Maryland," said Eye, 22, of Potomac. "I'm really happy that I have this responsibility."

Gayani Vithanage has spent her entire adulthood in the U.S. after she came more than 20 years ago from Sri Lanka at age 17. She got her degree in information systems from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and works as an accountant.

With the debate over immigration raging nearby in Washington, Vithanage said she supported America's long history of welcoming immigrants who sought a better life.

"You have lots of opportunities in this country," said Vithanage. "For me, if I was in Sri Lanka, I would not even have a degree."

Francine Orlean, who came from Haiti a decade ago, said she hoped to give back to the U.S. by eventually serving in the U.S. Air Force as a chaplain or psychologist. But first, the 18-year-old will attend Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma in the fall and study psychology and worship arts.

"Since I want to go into the military, it will mean that I will have more job options," said Orlean, of Hyattsville. "In my high school I took Junior ROTC and that helped me out a lot. It made me feel like I was part of something, and so joining the military would be my way of giving back."

Becoming a citizen will also mean Orlean can focus on helping her father and brothers still in Haiti.

"It means that I am better able to provide for those who are still in Haiti and help them to come here," she said.

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