Proud to be Americans: 30 foreigners step into citizenship in Amherst


Staff Writer

Published: 09-25-2023 11:36 AM

AMHERST — A co-founder and owner of a Holyoke clothing design and print business, who is also an assistant director at a private school in Holyoke, Carlos Peña came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was 2 years old.

Decades later, on Tuesday morning in the Woodbury Room at the Jones Library, after taking the oath of allegiance alongside 30 other immigrants, Peña was sworn in as a new American citizen, bringing a lengthy journey to citizenship to a close.

“It’s definitely an honor and very emotional because of the struggles my parents went though to get here, and the struggles I went through to get to this point,” Peña said.

As they arrived to check in, some accompanied by their children and family members, each of the new citizens received a packet of information and a small American flag. They hail from 22 countries including Australia, Bhutan, Burma, Central African Republic, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Greece, India, Italy, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Niger, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Turkey and Vietnam.

Judge Katherine A. Robertson of the U.S. District Court in Springfield presided over the naturalization ceremony in the space where a sign on the wall read “Congratulations New Citizens.” Robertson said it was her privilege to welcome the new citizens, noting that the languages, cultures and experiences they bring contribute to the vitality of the United States.

“We wish you the very best America has to offer,” Robertson said.

While Peña has run Paper City Clothing Co. and served as assistant director at LightHouse Holyoke school, he said it was frustrating that laws kept changing amid a shifting political scene, with different U.S. presidents improving or worsening the immigration process. Now that he is a citizen, he intends to register to vote.

“Being able to be part of the system itself,” Peña said, noting that he also intends to get a passport and begin traveling. “That’s on my bucket list.”

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Petr Tsyganov and Akhliia Tsyganova, Westfield residents who are from Russia, both earned their citizenship six years after coming to the United States. Accompanied by their daughters, Aleksandra, 7, and Alisa, 2, the family posed for photographs as each of the parents was handed the certification of citizenship by Robertson.

“Proud,” is how Tsyganova described herself and her husband, adding that the celebration would likely wait until the weekend.

Shanita Tucker, field office director for the U.S . Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Lawrence, said that all new citizens are immediately eligible to register to vote.

Andrea Battle, a representative from Amherst’s League of Women Voters chapter, was among those handing out cards with QR codes that simplify the process.

Tucker said people would need to wait two weeks to apply for Social Security benefits, though.

The citizenship process can take from several months to several years to finish, with a 10-page application, a $725 application fee, an FBI criminal records check, and finally, candidates appearing for a personal background interview in English in Lawrence.

The Pledge of Allegiance was done before the swearing in, when all new citizens declare they will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the country against all foreign and domestic enemies, and bear true faith and allegiance to that same Constitution.

Following the oath, Richmond Ampiah-Bonney, a longtime Amherst resident and citizen and a native of Ghana, sang the national anthem before a recording of President Joe Biden was played, in which he spoke about their courage, saying that they will now follow the American ideal that everyone is created equal.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke offered both a welcome and congratulations, encouraging people to use their new rights as soon as possible, including getting involved in their communities.

While none of her students in the English as a Second Language program at the Jones Library were part of the ceremony, director Lynne Weintraub said that often people seeking to start on the path to citizenship are sent to the Lawrence field office. She encouraged the new citizens to take part in conversation circles and other classes that can help immigrants.

“We will work with them as long as it takes,” Weintraub said.

Koby Gardner-Levine, regional manager for U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern’s office, said the new citizens are bound together by a shared respect for justice, liberty and equality, and that their diversity is a strength of the United States. Referencing the words of late civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Gardner-Levine called on them to embrace “good trouble” by doing what is right.

“America belongs to you now, too, and your success is part of our success,” Gardner-Levine said.

When Grace Asare of Chicopee got her certification of citizenship, there was loud applause from the room, which she said came from her husband, Gabriel.

Asare arrived in the United States in 2011 from Ghana on a student visa and got a green card. Working professionally as a nurse, she met her spouse and used the ceremony to take his last name.

“It means a lot to me,” Asare said of her new status. “This brought our family together.”

While their three children were at school Tuesday morning, the family will mark the occasion of her becoming an American, probably by going out to dinner later in the week.

“We definitely will be celebrating with the kids,” Asare said.