'Salt Lake City needs you': 148 immigrants, refugees sworn in as new US citizens

Asmaa Abdalla, originally from Egypt, at a naturalization ceremony at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

Asmaa Abdalla, originally from Egypt, at a naturalization ceremony at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Amid the unrelenting debate about undocumented immigration, 148 immigrants and refugees from around the world were sworn in as new U.S. citizens at a ceremony Thursday to mark World Refugee Day.

Those speaking at the event at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City steered clear of thorny political questions, instead emphasizing the historic role of immigrants in the nation's development and in diversifying the nation's culture. The 148 newly naturalized citizens come from 50 nations.

"Salt Lake City needs you. We want you and the culture and unique characteristics that you bring from your former nations. ... Your culture is important to us, and we want you to celebrate it," Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall told the crowd.

Utah Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, also addressed the gathering, noting the economic contribution of immigrants and refugees, especially after they attain citizenship. He sponsored a symbolic measure approved by Utah lawmakers earlier this year, HCR9, celebrating Utah as a "welcoming state" for refugees.

"Refugees and immigrants bring with them experience, skills and perspectives that enrich our society," Johnson said.

Citizenship, he went on, bolsters the engagement and productivity of those who attain it and adds to the "social and economic vitality" of the country. "Economically, the benefits of granting citizenship are significant. Immigrants and refugees actually contribute billions of dollars, every year, to our economy. They start businesses, create jobs and pay taxes. And studies have shown that with citizenship, their ability to engage and to contribute to that economic stability grows," Johnson said.


Salt Lake City needs you. We want you and the culture and unique characteristics that you bring from your former nations. ... Your culture is important to us, and we want you to celebrate it.

–Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall


The broader immigration debate across Utah and the nation focuses on those crossing illegally into the United States via the border with Mexico and others entering the nation via asylum claims made at the border. The state of Utah, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County recently started circulating a flier advising asylum-seekers without family or friends in Utah to reconsider coming to the state given limited housing and other services to assist them.

Johnson and the other speakers didn't delve into such questions, but the northern Utah lawmaker differentiated those at Thursday's ceremony from immigrants trying to enter the United States illegally.

"I want to congratulate you for following the process ... of becoming a citizen of the United States. You have done the right thing, and you have done it the right way," he said.

The 148 new citizens come from around the globe — Europe, Asia, South America, the Caribbean — and many of them and their family members on hand cheered and waved U.S. flags as the ceremony progressed. The United Nations has designated June 20 as World Refugee Day, meant to recognize the struggles refugees face around the world, and Thursday's event, cohosted by the Utah Department of Workforce Services' Refugee Services Office, was timed to coincide with it.

"I feel really excited mostly because I get my freedom back," Katherine Hunsberger, originally from Venezuela and one of the 148, said after the ceremony.

Her country has experienced corruption and economic mismanagement, U.S. officials charge, which has spurred many, including Hunsberger, to leave the South American nation. But now, she said, "I feel I'm free again." Notably, Hunsberger has been unable to vote in the United States and Panama, where she lived before coming here. Now as a U.S. citizen, she noted, she can take part in the electoral process here.

Alexander Cruz, of Ecuador, hugs friends and family after his naturalization ceremony at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday. The ceremony kicked off World Refugee Day celebrations in Utah as 148 immigrants and refugees got their citizenship.
Alexander Cruz, of Ecuador, hugs friends and family after his naturalization ceremony at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday. The ceremony kicked off World Refugee Day celebrations in Utah as 148 immigrants and refugees got their citizenship. (Photo: Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

Trescoth Guthrie, originally from Jamaica, came to the United States on a temporary worker visa and said attaining U.S. citizenship is a major milestone. "It's one of the happiest days in my life next to the birth of my son," he said.

Queried about the heated immigration debate, those at Thursday's ceremony offered mixed responses.

"For me, I think everybody should come in the country the right way," Guthrie said, while acknowledging that's not possible for everyone. He favors increased border security to, among other things, get a better handle on who's coming into the United States.

Jing Zhang, who accompanied his wife, Ling Li, one of the new citizens, to Thursday's ceremony, also emphasized the importance of following proper procedure in entering the country. Both Zhang and Li are originally from China and later emigrated to Canada before coming to the United States.

"They need to follow the legal process and not just cross the border," said Zhang, who's completing the process to become a U.S. citizen.

Hunsberger offered a more open-ended response, expressing sympathy for those fleeing hardship and struggles in other nations. "I feel we all deserve an opportunity," she said.

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ImmigrationMulticultural UtahUtahPoliticsVoces de UtahSalt Lake County
Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for KSL.com. He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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