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Pics: 55 people become US citizens at drive-in naturalization ceremony in St. Louis

Naturalization ceremony in St. Louis, Mo. on July 2, 2020. (U.S. District Court, Eastern MO/Released)

Fifty-five people from 25 countries around the world swore their allegiance to the United States and became citizens on Thursday, kicking off Fourth of July weekend celebrations as patriotically as possible amid a pandemic and a climate of tension across the country.

The ceremony took place at Drive-In St. Louis, also known as the POWERplex, where they sat socially distanced from one another under the hot sun with masks on. Families and friends were able to watch the ceremony from their cars. Because of the coronavirus, this was the first naturalization ceremony in months where more than 10 people could take part at a time and family members were able to witness their loved ones become Americans.

Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George W. Draper III addressed the group and reminded them of some of their responsibilities: To pay taxes, to serve on juries, to potentially serve in the military. He also encouraged them to exercise their right to vote, and to protest if they feel it’s right.

“The civil unrest we see right now is a privilege we have,” Draper said. “At times you might participate. We have the right to demonstrate, when there are issues that come up where the people’s voices need to be heard.”

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The chief U.S. district judge for the eastern district of Missouri, Rodney W. Sippel, led the oath of allegiance, after which singers performed the national anthem and the newly minted citizens stood, hands on hearts. He encouraged the group to keep with them in America “that which is fine and good” from their home cultures.

“Much of this country’s strength comes from its diversity,” Sippel said. “We can become a better America. America is not perfect. (It could have) more tolerance, more friendship.”

In the crowd was Maria del Rosario Bravo Gonzalez, the only new citizen from Spain. She was decked out in a bright red dress and red heels, with a red, white and blue sash at her waist.

“This is the time to become a citizen,” Gonzalez said. “This is a very special moment. There’s a lot of awareness and social unrest … it makes becoming a citizen a lot more meaningful to me. I feel like I can contribute to the democratic process more fully.”

To become U.S. citizens, the 55 people — from Kenya, Peru, Germany, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and many other places — had to prove they are of good character, that they were lawfully admitted to the country and that they have an understanding of the English language and the history and government of the United States.

Tapan Bhakta, 29, was sworn in alongside his father, Nitin Kumar, 58. They are from India but their entire family has moved to the U.S. They now live in Sikeston, Missouri, in the Bootheel. It took them about six months to become citizens. Bhakta and Kumar said they are looking forward to voting.

Bhakta is aware of the hardline immigration policies President Donald Trump has adopted, but said he understood the need for them.

“I wasn’t that much worried,” Bhakta said. “We were taking the right path and (Trump) was taking good steps. It’s all about the entire country, rather than one person.”

After the ceremony, Gonzalez had a video conference call with her family in Spain, donning a sparkly miniature Uncle Sam hat to celebrate. Before leaving, she filled out her voter registration card.

“I’ve been here for more than half of my life,” she said. “I feel Spanish, but I also feel American … I am very proud. I am very lucky to have two countries to call home.”

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© 2020 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch