Scientists, students, electricians, physicians, firefighters and individuals from all walks of life packed the stage at Belleville West High School auditorium on Friday.
Now, those individuals are also American citizens.
Family, friends and high school students filled the auditorium’s seats to watch 105 individuals from 40 different countries, ranging in age from 19 to 79, become naturalized citizens of the United States.
“We’re so thankful you’ve made this journey to join us,” said U.S. Judge Laura Grandy, who naturalized the new citizens. “You make the country we live in seem a little more special.”
Grandy asked the audience, most of whom were high school students who had lived in the metro-east their entire lives, to imagine leaving “everything that is home to you” behind.
That is exactly what Samson Siame, 35, did when he was 16 years old in 1998. He came to the U.S. as a member of a Zambian a cappella boys choir in the hopes of finding acclaim and making money — but the dream wasn’t what it seemed.
The leader of the group, pastor Keith Grimes of Whitesboro, Texas, had brought Siame and other boys to America under false pretenses. The boys were forced to perform incessantly without pay and were denied food. Grimes died in 1999 amid an investigation, according to CNN.
Siame received a “T-visa,” which is offered specifically to victims of human trafficking. On Friday, Siame, now an electrician and plumber, said it was “a relief” to finally become an American citizen. Now, he lives in Collinsville with his wife, Cynthia, and their 2-year-old son, Jacob.
“It felt like home anyways, but now I have the right to actually vote,” Siame said.
Tears came to Maricar Brown’s eyes when asked how it felt for her, a native of the Philippines, to become an American citizen. Brown, 37, lives in Carmi with her husband and step-daughter. Together they operate a watermelon farm.
“My experience is so very overwhelming now that I’ve become a citizen,” Brown said. “I’m so very happy and thankful to my husband and my step-daughter.”
Mariana Moreno, a 22-year-old psychology student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has lived in the U.S. for 17 years. She also became a citizen on Friday and said she’s glad there’s “no more paperwork, which is the best part.”
Students from government and debate classes at Belleville West had a chance to see their lessons in action. Cari Novaria teaches advanced placement U.S. history and a discussion class called American Problems. She said her students had been discussing governments procedures and civics in class.
One of the most important lessons her students learn in her class, however, is to respect each other’s opinions. She says her students have widely differing perspectives.
“But that’s what really makes the class interesting,” Novaria said.
Blake Grosse is a junior in one of Novaria’s classes who attended the ceremony. He said he wasn’t expecting to see immigrants in “high-ranking careers.”
“I’m glad to see that’s who we’re letting into this country,” Grosse said. “I didn’t think it was going to be so powerful. Half of those people in there speaking, I had to just sit there and was like, wow, that’s not something you see everyday. You don’t realize what some of these people go through all to become citizens.”
Near the end of the ceremony, the new citizens recited for the first time the Pledge of Allegiance, read by student council president Austin Quandt. The federal judge urged the new citizens to “make this country strong.”
“Many of you came maybe just to receive this gift of freedom, these benefits, this gift that is such a precious gift to our country,” Grandy said. “Sometimes we take that for granted.”
She reminded the new citizens, “You have exactly the same rights as all of us, and that’s the beauty of this country.”