BECOMING A CITIZEN
Foreign-born residents may become U.S. citizens by fulfilling requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act. Countries of origin in Thursday's Chattanooga naturalization ceremony were:
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security
For many crowded into the federal courtroom, the half-hour ceremony seemed like it would never happen.
"I must say while doing the process, it sometimes felt like it was impossible," said Berna Slabber, a new U.S. citizen following the first of two naturalization ceremonies held Thursday.
"I don't know how to describe today. I'm so relieved," said Slabber, a 44-year-old Signal Mountain resident and South Africa native.
Her celebration plans? American food.
"My friends are taking me out; I just told them anything with fries," she said.
After the ceremonies inside the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building on Georgia Avenue, the newly minted citizens clutched their naturalization certificates as family and friends snapped photos.
Fifty new citizens were sworn in during the morning ceremony at the courthouse, and 52 more were scheduled for the afternoon ceremony.
"This is a special day for you. It will go down in your lives along with your birthday and anniversaries," said U.S. Chief District Judge Curtis Collier, who presided over the ceremony in his standing-room-only courtroom.
Applicants recited the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, then listened to the Choo-Choo Chorus perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" and heard remarks from U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn.
Patricia Schoneck, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer, said there are typically two days of naturalization ceremonies a year in Chattanooga, and each averages about 100 new citizens.
Many of those present had lived in the United States at least five years before beginning the six-month application process that involves biometric testing, in-person interviews, background checks and tests on U.S. history and the political process.
Martin O'Shea is a 48-year-old native Briton who has lived in the United States for nearly a decade. He and his wife, Janet, drove from their home in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., through the massive storms Wednesday to stay overnight in Chattanooga for the Thursday ceremony.
He said he became a citizen to be more involved in his adopted land.
"When you think back to history, the Americans kicked out the British over taxes," he said. "If I'm going to be paying taxes, I want to be involved in it."
Shortly after Thursday's ceremony, Vilma Tooley, a 47-year-old Philippines native, gripped the packet of documents presented to new citizens along with a small bouquet of pink and red carnations.
"I'm happy and I'm very proud," she said, smiling.
Tooley moved to Unionville, Tenn., about five years ago from Davao City, Philippines, with her friend Elizabeth Burton.
Burton, 53, is in the process of becoming a citizen.
"I'm looking forward to this in a few months," she said.