Welcome, new Americans
Inspiring ceremony at UND sees 38 people from 11 countries take Oath of Citizenship
“It’s raining outside,” said Peter Welte, chief judge of the District Court of North Dakota, to the 38 people who’d gathered in an auditorium on campus to be sworn in as U.S. citizens.
Then Welte smiled. “But the sun is shining in here today,” he said. Indeed it was, as even UND President Andrew Armacost himself had tears in his eyes, given the Fourth of July-like pride in the occasion shown by the applicants and their many family members and friends.
Alongside those family members and friends, the Gorecki Alumni Center on Sept. 16 quickly filled with dozens of UND administrators and interested onlookers, who came to watch the first Naturalization Ceremony to be held on the UND campus in about 15 years. It was the high point of a day dedicated to the U.S. Constitution and the new citizens who swear an oath to it.
The ceremony was presided over by Alice R. Senechal, magistrate judge for the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota. Welte gave remarks and administered the Oath of Citizenship.
“By virtue of my post as Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota, I receive the privilege of participating in several ceremonies. There is none — none — that is a greater privilege than being permitted to administer the Oath of Citizenship to this great country,” Welte said.
“To all 38 of you from 11 different countries, thank you. It’s an honor with which I’m humbled.”
After the UND Concert Choir sang the national anthem, the ceremony unfolded as the District Court was brought into session, with the traditional call to order:
“Oyez, oyez, oyez, the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota is now in session, the Honorable Alice R. Senechal presiding. May God save the United States and this honorable court,” intoned Kevin Thompson, law clerk to Judge Senechal.
Senechal noted that Armacost, onstage before the attendees, had requested the ceremony be held at UND on Friday in recognition of Constitution Day, also known as Citizenship Day. The day commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787, and celebrates those who have become naturalized U.S. citizens.
In her function as the presiding judge, Senechal asked each individual participating in the ceremony to rise when she called the name of their native country. She repeated the process with the names of the North Dakota cities where the soon-to-be new citizens reside. She expressed her pleasure when she came to the citizen applicants who were serving in the U.S. military:
“I’m always impressed when people who are not yet citizens choose to serve in our military,” she said. “Thank you for your service.”
In his remarks, Welte said the nation was at a tipping point, and cited polls that show many Americans disapprove of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. The judicial branch, he continued, is also not immune to criticism. Trust in the “fourth estate,” the national media, has also eroded, Welte said, and many Americans doubt the truth of what they read in newspapers and watch on television news.
Welte said he had no good answers for the new citizens, but sees in them hope, enthusiasm and a unique understanding of what it means to be an American citizen.
He called upon the citizen-applicants, just moments from crossing the finish line in their marathon journey to citizenship, to seek truth and practice civility in their lives.
“With your efforts and with your leadership, we will further a better nation. We will better that nation that began as, and remains, a nation of hope and of opportunity. A nation that despite its flaws, remains the greatest nation in the world.”
Applause thundered through the auditorium when Welte, after granting a motion to accept the applicants as citizens, issued the Oath of Citizenship and welcomed the new citizens.
Standing behind the podium, Armacost was not disappointed when he asked for another round of applause for the nation’s newest citizens. He said that taking the Oath of Citizenship goes beyond swearing allegiance before a judge and reading words from a page. The oath is about swearing allegiance to the ideals set forth in the Constitution of the United States and to the principles of freedom.
“And that is what you have done today,” Armacost said, his voice breaking. “That makes all of us very, very proud to welcome you as citizens.”
Following a recorded video message from President Joe Biden, Senechal led the new citizens and attendees in the Pledge of Allegiance. Before applause again reverberated through the alumni center, she said the words the new citizens were waiting to hear:
“You are now citizens of the United States of America with full rights and responsibilities. Congratulations again.”
The room was all smiles after the newly minted Americans received their citizenship documents. They took photos with Armacost, Senechal and Welte in front of the American flag. Plenty of selfies were taken that morning as well, alongside photos with family members and friends.
Dimitri Dimitrov and Nadejda Dimitrova, from Moldova, made the long drive to the ceremony from Oakes, N.D., which lies to the west of Wahpeton. For them, the ceremony marked the beginning of their new lives as citizens.
“I’m so happy, so glad to be a U.S. citizen!” Nadejda Dimitrova exclaimed.
A lesson in citizenship
Also featured as part of UND’s Constitution Day celebration was a Memorial Union session titled “Naturalization/Immigration 101,” designed for people who wanted to learn more about becoming a U.S citizen.
The presentation was given by Amber Vasek, a UND graduate and community relations specialist for U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services. “I have been with the immigration service for 17 years,” said Vasek, who made her presentation remotely from Denver via online conferencing technology.
“And this has been one of the most rewarding careers. I never thought that I would be able to interact with people from around the world and from all of these multiple cultures — people who get to come in and who really enrich our lives and the things that we do here in the United States.”
Moreover, “one of my favorite things about my job is the naturalization ceremony, which you folks might have been able to see on the UND campus earlier today.” And knowing that many in her audience would be hoping to one day take part in such a ceremony, Vasek began her presentation.
First, she described the history and role of her agency — U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services. Then she explained in detail the process of becoming a citizen, stopping whenever asked to answer questions ranging from how long it takes to decide whether a person can get an employment-based visa, to whether an applicant for citizenship needs to submit for review his or her social-media accounts.
(“No, you do not,” Vasek answered the latter question. “However, if you’re applying as a married couple, and if the questions and the answers are really not lining up, we could ask to access social media to make sure that we could verify marital status or that sort of thing.”)
About 25 people attended Vasek’s presentation in person in the Memorial Union, with another 30 or so watching online.