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Several dozen become citizens in Baltimore naturalization ceremony

Haroldo Palma joined the Army as a medical lab technician in June 2013.

Two years after first donning his uniform, 20-year-old Palma became a citizen of the country he's serving.

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He joined 38 others from 26 countries who took the oath of allegiance Thursday at a naturalization ceremony attended by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

"This is my country and it is the best country in the world," said Palma, who moved to America from Mexico when he was 10 and now lives in Frederick. "I'm proud to live in it and defend it, and this day means everything to me."

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While delivering the keynote address at the ceremony, Rawlings-Blake encouraged the new citizens to be active in their communities, vote and makes their voices heard.

"In Baltimore, we've had a tough couple of months in a time when we've had to come together in resilience and focus on healing our city," she said. "When I look at you, I'm looking at a strong group of resilient people who have something to offer Baltimore in this time in our history."

Rawlings-Blake, who has shown support for immigrant-friendly policies, created the New Americans Task Force in 2013, leading to the establishment of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs.

"Welcoming in a bunch of new Americans who are taking the oath was a great opportunity for her given that immigration is part of her strategy to grow the city by 10,000 families," said Howard Libit, the mayor's director of strategic planning and policy.

About 20,000 people are naturalized in Baltimore every year, said Greg Collett, the Baltimore district director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"Though you entered this room from 26 different countries," Collett said to the crowd, "you will leave as citizens of one."

Earlier this year, Baltimore joined Cities for Citizenship, a national initiative made of almost 20 cities focused on increasing citizenship for eligible residents and advocating for investment in citizenship programs.

The Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs had a table set up at the ceremony with pamphlets offering information on homeownership, economic incentives for small business and loan opportunities.

Bina Shrestha, 46, became a citizen Thursday after moving from Nepal in 2007. Since coming to America, her husband has found a higher paying job. The family of four has been able to move into a house with reliable water and electricity and their 18-year-old daughter, who is mentally handicapped, has received the care she needs, like occupational and physical therapy.

"Our country is one of the poorest in the world. We have many problems with politics and lack of necessities," she said. "The people over here can't imagine the situation over there."

As Shrestha took photos with the American flag as a backdrop, certificate of naturalization in hand, her 8-year-old daughter clutched a miniature version of the flag in her hands.

"At last," said her husband, Bhuban Pikha, who became a citizen last month, "our dream has come true."

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