In her singsong voice, Sarah Moses asked the nervous 22-year-old Colombian man questions about American civics and culture: What is the name of the national anthem? At what age may a citizen vote? Why does the American flag have 13 stripes?
Juan Sebastian Bustamante Sanchez, who took the naturalization test at the G.H. Fallon Federal Building last week, had more in common with Moses than he realized. Moses, an officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, also had to pass the examination to become an American citizen.
She immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago with her parents and siblings when she was 8. The family settled in Coral Springs, Fla.
"It is amazing how life comes full circle," said Moses, now 40, the lilt of her Caribbean homeland still in her voice. She is an attorney who practiced immigration law for 12 years in South Florida before moving to Annapolis and joining immigration services in May 2011.
"It is an amazing experience to congratulate new applicants, because I know how it feels and I know what it's like to take that oath and experience it. There is a sense of excitement, because the world is open."
Bustamante, who passed his test, is one of more than 15,400 Maryland residents who have been naturalized this year so far. Moses administers, on average, about 10 examinations each workday.
Passing the naturalization test is one of many steps foreigners take to become Americans. In most cases, the process also includes obtaining a green card to become a permanent resident, learning to read, write and speak English, and studying U.S. history and government.
Bustamante came to the United States as a child after his father was granted asylum from their native Colombia.
Moses kept a smile on her face as she continued the exam. Bustamante nailed the questions, and Moses asked about his life: Whether he had ever been a "drunkard," if he had ever visited a prostitute, and if he had a criminal record or ever received a speeding ticket.
Bustamante answered "no" to each.
Such sessions last about 20 minutes each, and include a portion where the applicant must declare his commitment to the country, his support for the Constitution and his willingness to bear arms on behalf of the United States.
Moses warned Bustamante: "This is a very important part."
Sanchez attests to relevant parts of the Oath of Allegiance that he will take during his upcomingnaturalization ceremony, the final step to becoming a citizen.
"See, it wasn't so bad," Moses said. "You did very well."
Moses spoke of the importance of her job in thegraduation speech she gave as president of her class for immigration training.
"We hold a person's future, their dreams, their goals and their hopes in our hands," Moses said. "The answers we provide, the policy that we shape and the decisions that we make will undoubtedly affect the lives of not just those individuals we come in contact with, but their children and their children's children."
In addition to administering the naturalization test and determining whether the individuals be approved or denied for citizenship, Moses also reviews family- and employment-based petitions to determine whether to grant green cards to immigrants who want to stay in the country.
She also helps conduct the oath ceremonies, which she says is the highlight of her job.
"I wish every U.S. citizen that's born here could experience a ceremony," Moses said. "You live it through the eyes of the people who are being newly immigrated.
"I think if the general public could understand what people go through to get here and what they face in their daily lives, there might be a little bit more of an understanding [for the immigrant community]."
The Baltimore office holds one to three ceremonies a day, four days a week, and conducts about 10 special ceremonies a year that are open to the public.
The Baltimore office receives an average of 1,900 naturalization applicants a month, said Daniel Cosgrove, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The average case takes five months from the time an individual completes a naturalization application until he or she takes the oath, he said.
More than 88,000 Maryland residents have been naturalized through the Baltimore office since 2008.
In the last decade, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has naturalized more than 6.6 million citizens across the country. The top countries of origin last year were Mexico, India, thePhilippines, China and Colombia.
Most naturalized citizens — 73 percent — live in one of 10 states: California, Florida, New York, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Georgia, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Moses said her parents wanted to come to the United States so their four children could have more access to education and greater opportunities in life.
"That was the one thing my father wanted from all of us, to educate us and to allow us to become productive members of society," Moses said. "We all took advantage of what this country offers. I think he instilled in all of us the drive to be humanitarians and assist others."
She became a citizen when she was 19.
She earned a law degree from the University of Miami, practiced as an attorney, and earned a master's of law in international human rights at Stetson University before starting her job at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The agency does not track how many of their employees are naturalized citizens or Americans by birth, according to Cosgrove.
Moses said her goal is to do outreach on behalf of the agency to help foster a mutual understanding of its mission for both immigrants and citizens.
"Becoming part of this organization, it's been one of the best decisions of my life," Moses said. "I really believe in the good our organization does. I believe in this country, one hundred percent."