FLORENCE — Friday morning, 29 years after fleeing Guatemala to seek a better life in the U.S., Alejandro Gonzalez stood on the lawn of the federal building with approximately 30 other people and took the oath of U.S. citizenship.
It was the first citizenship ceremony to take place in Florence. Administering the oath was U.S. District Court Judge Inge Johnson, who is also a longtime resident of Tuscumbia.
It is the part of her job as a federal judge she loves the most, Johnson told the crowd.
“Thirty-five years ago,” Johnson said, her voice thick with emotion, “I stood in your shoes.” An audible murmur swept through the crowd. “My years in the United States have been the happiest years in my life.”
Johnson, who was born in Denmark, was visibly moved and wiped away tears as she spoke of this bit of shared history. She recalled taking a drive when she first arrived in America and seeing the open country.
“There was no apartment building, after apartment building, after apartment building. It was such a feeling of wealth. There were open spaces that everybody can enjoy.”
Countries represented among the crowd included Bangladesh, Mexico, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Iran, Russia, Philippines, Haiti, Malaysia, Kenya, South Korea, Iceland, Venezuela, Pakistan and Nigeria. Johnson told the new group of citizens she understood how difficult it was for them to renounced allegiance to their native countries.
“That is a hard decision ... a very serious decision,” she said. She urged them to have patience with Americans who don’t understand their culture and to take time to share that culture with others to promote diversity.
The process to citizenship can be daunting, but Gonzalez appeared happy to have it finally culminate in Friday’s ceremony.
Gonzalez said he “had to learn a little English” when he came to American in 1984. He spoke his native language, turning to his son, Marvin Gonzalez, and to Hal Carrigan to interpret for him. Carrigan teaches English as a second language at Northwest-Shoals Community College and taught Marvin.
“It means so much to me because today I’m becoming a citizen of the United States,” Alejandro Gonzalez said.
It didn’t take Adel Awad as many years as Gonzalez to become a citizen. Awad, who is from Jordan, studied for six years after coming to American with his wife, Somar. Somar, whose father is also from Jordan and whose mother is American, said she met Adel while on a visit to Jordan. They have three children, a 5-year-old son, 4-year-old daughter and a 6-week-old son who slept quietly in his carrier while Adel took the citizenship oath. They live in Morris, which is about 30 miles north of Birmingham.
Somar said her husband came to American for a better life.
“He worked 40 hours a week (in Jordan) and made $200 a month,” she said. “It’s a very poor country.”
As for leaving his country and family behind, Adel said, “My wife, my kids, my life, is my family.”
The citizenship ceremony was part of the centennial celebration of the John McKinley Federal Building on Seminary Street in Florence. The federal building was constructed in 1913.
The second-floor courtroom was recently renovated, bringing the interior back to its former glory while sharing the old-world wood wainscoting, wooded benches and arched windows with state-of-the-art electronic technology.
Chief Judge Joel Dubina with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals was guest speaker and remarked on the “superb restoration” of the building.
“This building is one of the more beautiful courthouses I’ve seen in this country,” he said.
He said there was “much discussion” about closing federal satellite courthouses in the 11th Circuit. The Gadsden courthouse did close, he said, but the one reason the others remained open was because they are being used.
A reception was on the front lawn of the federal courthouse and visitors toured the courtroom. The ground floor of the building is a post office.
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”