It was a packed auditorium Wednesday morning at Kyrene de los Cerritos Elementary School, where 199 immigrants from 48 countries stood to take the last step to becoming full-fledged U.S. citizens. From places as disparate as Mexico, China, Iraq and New Zealand, the day was a culmination of anywhere between five and 15 years of waiting for some of them. But this was it. "Congratulations," said speaker Slade Mead, a former state senator and Ahwatukee Foothills resident. "It's fun to be in the same nation as you." The event was particularly meaningful to one participant: Ahwatukee Foothills resident and popular Cerritos teacher aide Karol Pacheco. It was her transition from Mexican national to U.S. citizen that prompted the naturalization ceremony to be held in the school's auditorium. "I'm going to try not to cry," Mead said, visibly pleased. "I got a phone call from Mrs. Karol saying she was going to be a citizen and could she come to the ceremony. The excitement in that phone call was electric." And indeed, after Pacheco and the other 198 immigrants took the U.S. Oath of Citizenship, her demeanor was still charged. "I am very happy," Pacheco said, all smiles. "This is a great country with great people." The event, which usually takes place in a federal courthouse and was presided over by U.S. District Judge David Duncan, was put together by the school and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS). The previous citizenship ceremony to take place in the Kyrene School District occurred 15 years ago. Marie Sebrechts, spokeswoman for the UCIS, said holding the events in public places for communities to see was part of the institution's goals since being created four years ago as a part of the Department of Homeland Security. "We do it pretty frequently," Sebrechts said. "It's a big commitment of time and personnel to go out to the community. We can't do it every single week, but we're doing a lot of special ceremonies this year." Sebrechts added the UCIS had been interested in getting more community members out to see events like these to understand the finish line in what can be a long and slow-moving process. "In general, they're not aware we have people becoming naturalized literally every week in this country. We have about 700,000 a year becoming citizens, and most people don't know the story and don't see the process." One person who was happy to see the process was 9-year-old Sam Rosenberg, a Cerritos student and Boy Scout who was there to perform the presentation of colors. "It was very, very cool because I got to see people who became U.S. citizens," Sam said. The path to citizenship can be exceptionally long, depending on individual circumstances. Pacheco, for example, married a U.S. citizen and still had to wait over 15 years for her day to come. Others can go through faster, especially in circumstances of political asylum, but even their journey can last a half-dozen years. One such man who became an American Wednesday was in such a circumstance. After the event the man, a Ghanaian who wasn't identified, approached Mead to personally thank him for the U.S.'s openness to accepting immigrants from dangerous parts of the world. "I want to thank you for helping the refugees; those who have no hope." Sebrechts said events like Wednesday's were good for community members, and especially for the children in attendance. "People come through this struggle and come to this day and it's really valuable to help us remember our country's heritage. We forget our country is made up of people from all over the world, and that's what makes our country so unique: the minute you're a citizen, we're all the same." --Jason Ludwig can be reached at (480) 898-7916 or

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