The day was picture-perfect. White clouds dotted the blue sky, shading the 75 people who had gathered on the sprawling lawn of President Theodore Roosevelt’s “summer White House,” Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay.
They wore their finest attire for this special occasion, held on Sept. 16 — the day when they would become citizens of the United States of America.
Taking their seats, the men and women from 32 different countries waited in silence. Some dabbed away tears when the naturalization ceremony began.
“This is a big deal for me, like winning the Lotto,” said Anthony Corry, 50, from Dublin. He came to the U.S. for the first time in 1997 to visit his cousins in Port Washington. He was so enamored with the U.S. that he decided to stay.
“Becoming a citizen, I’m being accepted in a country that I’ve chosen as my home,” Corry said. “And to be doing this on the lawn of a former president . . . amazing. I took the tour at Sagamore Hill two years ago, but never thought I’d become a citizen here.”
Judge A. Kathleen Tomlinson, who was the master of ceremonies, typically presides over naturalization ceremonies in the Alfonse D’Amato U.S. Courthouse in Central Islip. A federal magistrate with many other duties, Tomlinson said she enjoys this duty the most.
“There are so many things that stand out as being special in life and this is one of them,” Tomlinson said. “If I could tell you what it’s like to look into their faces during the ceremony.”
On Long Island, a steady stream of immigrants is naturalized each year. In 2015, some 22,500 residents received citizenship, and in 2016, 18,000 –– or nearly 42,000 over two years.
Naturalization ceremonies are performed several days a week in Islip, with 80 to 150 people becoming citizens each time. “For a period of time, there were so many people waiting to become citizens standing in lines,” Tomlinson said. “We couldn’t keep up with the number of people.”
Tomlinson said residents are always grateful when they are naturalized. “One man of Middle Eastern descent kissed my shoes, which was embarrassing, but that’s how much it meant to him,” she recalled. “What a blessing it is to be involved in this.”
Why Sagamore Hill?
Constitution Day is marked each year on Sept. 17 with naturalization ceremonies across the nation. Because it fell on a Saturday this year, the ceremonies were held the day before. Sagamore Hill was chosen as the Long Island location that day because it is a national park, and this year the National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary.
“TR had quite an assortment of legacies he left behind, and one was that he promoted citizenship and its many benefits when he was president and after when he traveled abroad,” said Kelly Fuhrmann, superintendent of the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. “We are welcoming the new citizens to paradise.”
Tomlinson said she believes that a better place could not have been chosen for the ceremony. “Here we are being permitted to hold the ceremony in a place with other historical significance,” she said. “We like that this was the summer White House for TR and that it is a national park. It’s also a beautiful setting, perfect for the joining of our resources.”
A life-changing ceremony
The friends and family who attended the Sept. 16 ceremony not only experienced a great deal of pride in and joy for those who became citizens, but also they were privy to quite a celebration.
The processional, led by 13 judges, was followed by music played by men and women clad in green kilts from the Tara Pipes & Drums.
Tomlinson said having judges from so many different courts indicated how special the occasion was. “Normally one judge presides over a naturalization ceremony, not 13,” she said, smiling. “I know you’ve heard many times that the U.S. is a land of immigrants. We have people here today that came here to become U.S. citizens from as close as Mexico and as far away as Malaysia.”
When U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Bianco spoke, he began by encouraging the candidates to be active citizens and to vote.
“Thousands of men died in the Civil War to defeat slavery and many gave their lives in Normandy to fight fascism,” Bianco said. “Contribute with yourself, who you are, to make this place a better place for each other and the future of our country. These judges sitting here, many are sons and grandchildren of immigrants like you.”
Then, one by one, each candidate was called to accept a certificate of citizenship to commemorate the day, as well as a small American flag. Bianco paused to congratulate the new citizens and hear their thoughts.
That day the Gough family became citizens together. Lisa, Steven and their children Samantha, 25, and Alex, 21, came to the U.S. in 2000 from England. Steven’s company sponsored them.
“It’s a very proud moment we can do this as a family,” Steven said, wrapping his arm around his wife. “We dreamt about this for a long time and feel very thankful today and blessed.”
Outside, under one of Sagamore Hill’s giant trees, Matthew Goh, 5, counted the stripes on a miniature American flag, tugging at the pant leg of his father, Andrew, who is from Malaysia and came to the U.S. in 2001.
“I came here for college and opportunity,” Andrew said, ruffling his son’s hair. “I wanted a career in medicine, and I always wanted to become a citizen.”
Carol Kelly, from Trinidad, hadn’t planned to stay in the U.S. She was on a two-month vacation, but then she fell in love. “I got married four years later, had a child, and also fell in love with the U.S.,” Kelly said. “I learned about the history and realized how people take it very seriously here. I love that part — that people care about their history here.”
The festivities continued after the ceremony when light refreshments were served and the new citizens were offered an opportunity to register to vote by the League of Women Voters. Then everyone gathered to take a photo on the porch of Sagamore Hill. A tour of the house museum was next.
Clearly, TR’s spirit was alive and well that day.
Testing their knowledge
Becoming a U.S. citizen, or “peer of kings,” as President Calvin Coolidge put it, requires passing a rigorous test.
Applicants must answer 100 history and government questions. Ten of the questions must be answered orally, and the other 90 in writing.
The English section of the test requires speaking, reading and writing. One out of three sentences must be read and written correctly.
Paolo Diaz, who teaches English as a Second Language classes at the Locust Valley Library, said that before Sept. 11, 2001, the test was shorter and easier.
“I worry about my students because they need to be able to write English with the proper grammar, including past tenses,” she said. “You don’t know what they are going to give you so you really have to study.”
Sample test questions
How many U.S. senators are there?
The Federalist Papers supported passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
The U.S. House of Representatives has how many voting members?
What territory did the U.S. buy from France in the 1800s?
One must legally migrate to the U.S.
Become a permanent resident with a green card, or permit to live in the U.S.
Apply for U.S. citizenship after five years of permanent residency.
Pass the naturalization test.