Thirteen immigrants from six countries became U.S. citizens in the Oregon State Capitol Wednesday for the second time in the state's history.
Secretary of State Dennis Richardson celebrated new citizens from Canada, China, El Salvador, Mexico, Thailand and the United Kingdom in the Senate chambers on the same day as Oregon's 159th birthday.
"It is their diversity, experience and enthusiasm that strengthens the fabric of our communities," Richardson said.
More than 50 family members sat on the chamber floor where senators typically sit during the legislative session and took video on their cellphones while relatives raised their hands and pledged allegiance to the United States.
Some guests' eyes filled with tears, others smiled broadly when their relatives shook hands with Richardson during the ceremony.
"We are fortunate and very lucky to have the diversity of your experiences added to our great country," said House Speaker Tina Kotek. "I hope you participate in all levels of government — local, state and federal — by exercising the right to vote, by staying engaged, and listening and educating yourself ... about what we do in state government."
Kimberly Martinez, 18, originally from Jalisco, Mexico, cried after becoming a citizen with her sister Lucero Martinez, 24. Their parents clutched the ceremony programs in their hands while watching them receive certificates of citizenship.
"Coming from someone who has worked in the fields and who didn't have any papers, this comes as a relief," said Lucero Martinez.
She was 5 years old, and her sister Kimberly 8 months, when her parents moved from Jalisco to Fresno, California before settling in Oregon. The two sisters grew up picking berries on Oregon farms along with their parents during the summertime.
"Coming to this country was difficult because we didn't know the language, and then my mom got sick and she still had to take care of us," said Lucero Martinez. Citizenship "means a lot to us."
The citizenship application process wasn't easy for the sisters. Lucero Martinez said their family lives from paycheck to paycheck, squeezing dollars out of a low-income farmworker budget.
The family, who lived in Brooks when the sisters began the application process a decade ago, would travel to Portland to meet with an immigration attorney to assist with paperwork. In times when the family didn't have access to a car, the sisters joined their mother on a bus for the roughly 3-hour ride to Portland.
"It was time-consuming and it was money consuming," said Lucero Martinez. "Every visit with an attorney cost about $1,000 and that's a lot of money for a low-income family."
She said the lawyer visits, coupled with the fees attached to different documents required for applying for citizenship, contributed to the decade-long wait for citizenship.
"This comes as a relief and it gives hope for people like us who want to do more than work in the fields," said Lucero Martinez.
Quinn Andrus, the community relations officer for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, said she admits the applications fees are steep, but said the review process comes with "a lot of moving parts that need to be supported."
The N-400 application for naturalization costs $640, or $725 if a biometric screening fee is applicable, according to the immigration services website. Military applicants don't have to pay this fee, and applicants 75 years or older don't have to pay the biometric fee.
If an application is denied, applicants can file a $700 form to request a hearing before an immigration officer on the denial. Members of the United States armed forces are also exempt from this fee.
Applicants also have to file a $1,170 fee to apply for a certificate of citizenship. This includes applicants who are the adopted child or as a child of a veteran or a member of the armed forces.
"All of our forms are available online, they have detailed instructions, and you can follow them step by step," Andrus said. "It's a form, but it's not impenetrable."
Andrus said there are a number of ways to legally live in the United States including earning a green card, getting sponsored by an employer and applying for naturalization.
"When somebody has a green card, and they’ve been here for a certain number of years, and they fulfill requirements under the law, they can apply to be a citizen," Andrus said.
For people who have earned a green card through marriage, that process takes about three years. For those who earn their green card through work or family connections, that can take five years. Veterans or people in the armed forces are able to expedite the citizenship process.
"There are all kinds of rumors out there, and people make assumptions about the process and they don’t have all the information," Andrus said. "The fact is that if you have a simple case ... you can probably apply for citizenship on your own without a lawyer."
After the thirteen new citizens received their certificates, they posed for photos with family inside the Senate Chambers, each new American citizen clutching miniature American flags.
"I know this will provide more opportunities for us," said Lucero Martinez. "I feel like I have a voice now."