By REBECCA RAKOCZY, Special To The Bulletin | Published July 5, 2007
July 4, 2000, was an auspicious date for Msgr. Luis Zarama. It was the birthday of America—and the day he swore allegiance to his adopted country.
The native-born Colombian, and now vicar general of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, had been in the United States for nine years, and the significance of becoming a citizen on Independence Day was not lost on him.
“I’m happy here, I choose to be here, and I feel like I’m part of the system as a citizen,” he said. “As a citizen, you are part of the country, and you have the right to exercise your freedoms—to vote and do your part—and I think if you are not a citizen, you don’t have that right. How can you criticize the U.S. and give your opinions if you aren’t a citizen?”
Later that same year, Msgr. Zarama did exercise his freedom to vote in the presidential election—and he stood in a long line to do so.
“I remember I had to wait for an hour and a half the first time I voted here,” he said.
It’s a privilege he doesn’t take for granted.
“I am very lucky; it’s not easy today (to become a U.S. citizen) especially right now. But I think it’s up to the person who is living here to make their own petition to become a citizen or not.”
Growing up in Ireland, Father Frank McNamee always saw America as a symbol of freedom, he said. The pastor of St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell reflected on the similar histories of his homeland and his adopted country. He recently noted his one-year anniversary of becoming a U.S. citizen.
“In Ireland, we fought for the right to religion and for Catholics to own their own land—and people sacrificed their lives for that,” he said. He saw that same hunger for freedom in America’s history.
While information about the branches of the U.S. government and names of presidents are part of the basic “test” to become a U.S. citizen, Father McNamee was amused by one question in particular.
“I had to answer—what is July 4 for?”
“I think the guy who tested me was Catholic—there was a calendar of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit on his wall,” he said with a laugh. His answer?
Although he still visits relatives in Galway, Father McNamee said his U.S. citizenship makes it much easier for him to pass through immigration. But he’s not staying overseas too long.
“Georgia is my home, Atlanta is my home—I’m not going to retire in Ireland,” he said. “I appreciate the freedom of this country. America has a short history (in comparison to Ireland’s), but they have sacrificed much for their freedom.”
One of the newest U.S. citizens is Father Jose Duvan Gonzalez. A native of Colombia and resident of the United States for the past 11 years, Father Duvan, who is vicar for clergy and the director of Hispanic ministry, officially became a citizen on May 18.
“The process was smooth and quick; I was a little nervous because of the language,” he wrote in an e-mail. During the process of becoming a citizen he “learned more about the history of the country.”
“My favorite thing about being here is how it has enriched my life; now I have a better understanding of my Anglo brothers and sisters and also other cultures of the world,” he said.
“What motivated me to become a citizen was the reality of the migrants here; I see the opportunity in the future to vote for a better legislation.”
He also noted that “from my perspective, residents born in the U.S. … take for granted that everybody has the same way of life, and they don’t know all the need and suffering that there (is) in the surrounding countries. They should be feeling blessed of being born here and open their hearts to their brothers and sisters in need.”
Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty were the first reminders of freedom in this country for Father Paul Burke. The native of Galway, Ireland, is in the process of obtaining his U.S. citizenship.
“I had spent my first summer in the U.S. in New York with my cousin and her husband,” Father Burke recalled. “That was 1990. My first Fourth of July we spent the day at Ellis Island. That was before they put the Heritage Center up there, and I was looking at it the way many Irish would have come in, and what they would have seen (of America) for the first time. My guess was it wasn’t the way it is now. They had quarantines and looking at their experience that way, my own experience (becoming a citizen) has been relatively without hardship,” he said.
While he experienced the icons of America’s freedom in New York, it has been his time in Washington, D.C., studying in a summer canon law program at Catholic University, that motivated him to become a citizen.
“To see the Capitol and the White House and everything that goes along with it, you can’t be in Washington without having some sense of national pride. We would go for walks around the monuments in the evenings; they inspired me,” he said.
Now he must wait.
After having temporary visas for almost 16 years both as a student and as a “religious worker,” which is the designation that priests have, he spent the five years necessary with his green card status before applying for citizenship this summer. He plans to take the required tests this November.
“By next July 4, I’ll be a citizen,” he said.
He hopes to spend it back in Washington to watch the nation’s birthday celebrated with fireworks on the Mall. That’s an experience that is quintessentially American.
“There’s something there that’s even more than the impressive fireworks; it’s the reaction of people. There’s so many people crowded onto the Mall. It’s very much a United Nations, and they all have this same sense of national pride.”