The moment that Juliet Sanchez had been anticipating for nearly 30 years had arrived. Flanked by the original US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, she and 29 other immigrants from 22 countries became US citizens Friday morning.
While the new Americans watched a recorded message from President Donald Trump welcoming them to the United States, the President, from just a few blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue, nearly simultaneously was tweeting his opposition to “chain migration,” a term referring to the process of immigrating to the country based on family connections.
As a debate over immigration policy rages nationally, including over Trump’s controversial decision to end an Obama-era program that protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children from deportation, Sanchez and the others who were granted citizenship said they believe their new status has extra meaning.
“It feels like a big responsibility; it feels like a big gift also, because I feel like these political times are the perfect opportunity for someone like me,” Sanchez said after the ceremony at the US National Archives, explaining that she was excited that she would now be able to vote.
Sanchez, 37, is a teacher in a Latino community in Washington, DC. A Colombian, she came to the US nearly six years ago. But her path to citizenship started nearly 30 years ago, as a 9-year-old, when her family applied for visas for family reunification. The visas came — but not until 14 years later, when she was over 21 years old and no longer included as nuclear family.
“So all my family could come but I had to stay, so that was hard,” she said, explaining how she had to wait until they achieved citizenship to sponsor her to come to the US.
Many of the new citizens had similar stories of long waits leading up to Friday. All who spoke with CNN began the process to become Americans at least 15 years prior, and they said the culmination of their journeys felt even more important in today’s political landscape.
And, like Sanchez, they said they looked forward to voting.
"I think it's really important, especially now that we're becoming citizens ... in this environment, because more of us need to become citizens so that more of us can vote," Anastasio Canales, a 52-year-old immigrant from El Salvador who has lived in the US for 25 years, said with the aid of an interpreter.
Samira Hossain, a 34-year-old from Bangladesh who moved to the US 17 years ago for college, echoed him. "It makes me feel good (to become a citizen right now) because I can vote and make a change, hopefully," she said.
"Before, my husband and friends would talk about it, and there was nothing I could do because I couldn't vote," Hossain said. "So I'm hoping that me voting and more people voting, we could really make a change."
Son Thach, a 30-year-old from Vietnam, said it was the November election that convinced him the time had come to naturalize. Thach came to the US 15 years ago, when his father worked for the embassy. When Thach's diplomatic visa ended, he began navigating the difficult process of staying in the US, he said,
"Basically, with the turnout of the election, that's what pushed me to naturalize," Thach said. "Because I could have just been a green card holder for a long time. But with all the changes, I don't know what's going to happen -- might just be (better) safe than sorry."
Their comments come after the Trump administration moved earlier this month to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which President Barack Obama created through executive action in 2012 in the face of what he decried as legislative inaction. The popular program has protected nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation and allowed them to work and study in t he US, and Congress is now racing against a March deadline to put the program into law before the protections begin to expire.
The administration will also decide over the next several months whether to extend the status of as many as 440,000 immigrants granted "temporary protected status" (TPS) to prevent deportation to countries that remain dangerous because of such things as armed conflicts, natural disasters and epidemics.
On Friday, however, the new citizens received a warm welcome in a recorded message from Trump.
"We celebrate this day, we welcome you into our national family, we applaud your devotion to America and we embrace the wonderful future we will have together," Trump's message said.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, James McCament, who were on hand to deliver keynote remarks on the anniversary of the Constitution's signing, also extolled the contributions of immigrants to the United States.
"Over the centuries, America has been enriched by the talents, cultures, skills, ingenuity, and values brought here by immigrants," Duke said. "It continues to be enriched by the gifts you bring with you today."
Duke also referenced "a time of division in the world," saying there are visible "demonstrations of ugliness and intolerance on our streets, on the Internet, and on the evening news."
"But just as you have come from different backgrounds and bring different views and ideas to your new nation, a diversity of thought and viewpoints can ultimately make our nation stronger," she added.
Still, Duke emphasized that the new citizens in the room had followed the nation's immigration system to get there -- a sign of the Trump administration's hardline enforcement of immigration laws and efforts to curtail illegal immigration.
"In choosing to become citizens of the United States, you've demonstrated that you value our country," Duke said. "You value the rule of law. You value the time and effort it takes to do things the right way."
But Sanchez said if she could send a message to the politicians several blocks away on Pennsylvania Avenue, it would be to remind them that immigrants come to the US for opportunity -- and stay to give back.
"I would like to say to the President to really live the words that he said to us, new citizens today ... in that video," she said. "He talked about how immigrants are the force of this country. ... So why would he and his fellow Republicans and all those politicians who were against immigrants, who are against DACA/TPS, why take away the opportunities from us and other immigrants to just keep building this nation for a better future? So my message to them is to live and actually practice their speech. When they talk about unity, when they talk about how great this country, just let us keep making it greater."