CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — Above a wildfire smoke-shrouded Crater Lake, surrounded by loved ones and park rangers on the stone plane of Watchman Overlook, 12 people got a gift they’ve wanted for years on Saturday: American citizenship.
They immigrated to Oregon from across the globe —India, Mexico, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, China and the United Kingdom — and waited five, 10, even 40 years for this day.
Many said they didn’t anticipate their citizenship certificate to come from such a special event: an immigration nationalization ceremony jointly hosted by United States Citizen and Immigration Services and Crater Lake National Park.
Marsha McCabe, chief of interpretation and public information officer at Crater Lake, said there was great significance in naturalizing at an American national park.
“To me, there’s no greater place to celebrate becoming citizens than the national parks because it’s now a part of their heritage,” McCabe said. “These parks belong to all of us, and it’s hopefully something that they can be proud of as citizens.
The ceremony, less than an hour, included speeches from Crater Lake Superintendent Craig Ackerman and USCIS Portland field office director Richard Miller. A choir performed renditions of the national anthem, “America the Beautiful” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
In his keynote speech, Ackerman described the privileges and duties that come with being an American. “We have freedom,” he said, “but an obligation to vote; we have a singular democratic system, but it needs our constant, active engagement to thrive.
“So though we may come from far apart and have different backgrounds, we’re all now a part of this great nation, this ongoing experiment in democracy,” he said. “Please keep you own heritage and traditions, but add them to the diversity that is out strength and our unlimited potential.”
Miller led the new Americans through an oath of citizenship, then invited each to receive individual citizenship certificates.
For Jaswant Singh and his wife, son and daughter in the audience, that moment was years in the making. They moved here 10 years ago from India; it took them five years to get a green card, and another five to establish citizenship.
“It was a dream come true,” Singh said. “It’s like a golden gate which is open for us, and there is a land of opportunity. We will contribute to the opportunities as we can. This is our country now — this feels like being home.”
Nicole Owings, originally of England, said she was moved by the ceremony, and the support of her family and best friend who came to watch.
Owings has lived here for 40 years. When her English father naturalized in high school, he and her English mother gave Owings and her brother a choice: mom could naturalize too, automatically making both children citizens, or they could stay English.
“My brother and I were like, ‘No! It’s way cooler being an English citizen,’” Owings said through a chuckle.
A few years later, mother and brother changed their minds and naturalized.
Owings was excited to finally share their American identity as an adult.
“I think we all need to vote, and we all need to have a say in our political climate and our natural space that need to be preserved,” she said. “It’s the land of the public. We’re all becoming conservators.”
A park volunteer in a bright orange vest sidled quietly up to Owings, then presented her with a single red rose: “For becoming and American,” she said.
Like Owings, Didier Donne from Belgium said he was excited to participate in the American democratic process.
Didier moved to America 17 years ago when he was 19 for college. He got his green card after five years of living here, and met his American wife, Rachel Donne, in school.
Rachel and Didier married soon after graduation — Rachel was 23, Didier was 25 — partly to make his American citizenship more feasible.
To Rachel, Didier’s new citizenship meant more than she expected.
“Oh man — I’m getting all weepy again! Dang it!” Rachel said. “We got married pretty young because we were trying to start a life together, and that was a good start for somebody who was on a student visa. We were not ready for marriage, we didn’t understand the ins and outs, but we came to learn.”
Didier said he’d grown in many ways since coming to America, both as an individual and a husband to Rachel. He said the company of the other 11 new Americans at the ceremony felt comforting.
“Looking back at that entire experience and knowing that other people have gone through something similar…it’s something that I’d recommend anybody attempt to do, to get that kind of perspective. That’s important to get an understanding of what we have in front us. To be this lucky.”
Rachel looked at her husband and smiled.
“We’ve come so far, we’ve grown so close,” she said, welling up. “I feel like this is sort of the culmination of all that. You’re finally an official part of this county.”