Naturalized citizens explain why they're American by choice

Immigrants take the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony in Atlanta to officially become U.S. citizens.

Story highlights

  • This July Fourth, we ask naturalized citizens why they chose to become Americans
  • Some wanted a better education or career opportunities
  • Others needed to escape political or economic turmoil
  • See the process of naturalization through the eyes of immigrants
The atmosphere is hushed and quiet as about 150 people take their seats. They're each clutching a folder and a tiny American flag. A few whisper about being nervous, but can't quite articulate why. It's the ubiquitous butterflies in the stomach that seem to come with any big day, any big decision.
As big days go, this is one of the biggest. All these people are about to become citizens of the United States. They'll gain the right to vote, to work certain jobs, to serve on a jury and to run for office. In about an hour, at the end of their citizenship ceremony in Atlanta, they'll officially be American by choice.
Jutka Emoke Barabas remembers that jittery feeling well. She was naturalized in 2000 in Honolulu, where she still lives, and is one of several CNN iReporters who spoke about why they chose to become American citizens. "Everyone arrived too early and we found ourselves standing and waiting, hardly able to contain our excitement," she said. "Everyone seemed to speak at the same time as they shared their stories with one another." There was a soldier from Cambodia, and Emoke Barabas herself, a political refugee from Hungary.
Jutka Emoke Barabas smiles for the camera at her naturalization ceremony in Honolulu in 2000.
As a writer with dissenting views, Emoke Barabas said she had been thrown in a Romanian prison under former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Her father showed her a photo of the Statue of Liberty, telling her, "This is the place where freedom lives." After her release, she said she made it to Switzerland and, eventually, to the United States in 1990. Ten years later, she became a U.S. citizen.
"For me, American citizenship means freedom of expression and to live and work in a free country ... and not have to be afraid of being arrested or harassed because of owning certain common books or pictures," said Emoke Barabas. She also feels a sense of responsibility to her adopted country. "To be an American is not just a great honor, but also an obligation to do more and reach higher."
It has been a long wait in the Atlanta heat for the immigrants waiting to be naturalized this morning. The first in line arrived around 8 a.m. for a ceremony that starts at 9:30. But this is just the last stretch of the years-long marathon that most of them have been through to become Americans. For most people, it takes at least five years to become a citizen, and that's after you already have a green card -- permanent residency status -- a process that can take years itself. Many people at the ceremony have been in the United States for 10 years or more. One woman moved here in 1978.