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Long Island's newest Americans celebrate Fourth of July

Yanir Canales of Westbury and other members of

Yanir Canales of Westbury and other members of the US armed forces were among 143 immigrants to become US citizens during a July Fourth celebration at Ellis Island. (June 2, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

They raise families. They hold down jobs. They serve in the armed forces. They pay taxes.

They feel very much like Americans. But something has always been missing.

They noticed it on Election Day, when they stayed home while their neighbors went off to vote.

They noticed it when they traveled abroad, and stood on long lines because they didn't have U.S. passports.

After years of holding green cards as lawful permanent residents, these newest Americans say their decision to take the oath of citizenship is both pragmatic and patriotic.

Some of the newly minted Americans from Long Island, and some about to take the oath, say the path to citizenship is sometimes arduous, marked by confusing rules and bureaucracy. They take the oath amid continued national debate over immigration reform. But now, they are looking forward to celebrating the Fourth of July enjoying the rights most Americans take for granted.

"Today is a very important day for me," said U.S. Army Spc. Andre Kesler, 23, of Central Islip, at a naturalization service Friday on Ellis Island. "I have always wanted to become a citizen. Who doesn't want to be [a] U.S. citizen?"

On L.I., they embrace U.S. citizenship

Silvia Rea, 36, East Hampton

Country of origin: Chile

The property manager of an East Hampton estate, Rea came to the United States 17 years ago to learn English and stayed when she met her future husband, Shawn, manager of a construction company.

Shawn and their daughter, Ashley, 9, are citizens. But family trips overseas were “a lot of hassle” because Rea said she had to explain to authorities why her green card had her married name and her Chilean passport listed only her maiden name.

Finally, she resolved to become a citizen when she felt left out on Election Day 2008. She will take the oath of citizenship July 12 in Central Islip.

“I wanted to vote in the Obama election, but I couldn’t,” Rea said. “He still won.” Rea said she understands why some immigrants remain undocumented, because of her own difficulties at immigration offices — an experience that she said included red tape and lost files. Immigrants should seek legal status, she said, but immigration laws “make it very, very difficult.”

Mini Varghese, 41, Nesconset

Country of origin: India

When Varghese left her family in Bangalore in 1996 to move to the United States, she thought of the move as temporary. Back then, Varghese, who now works as a business analyst for MetLife, thought she would build her career and then move back to her native country.

But as time passed, she obtained her green card and started a family. For her, becoming a citizen is the last step in embracing America as her new home and as the place where she will raise her 2-year-old son.

“The U.S. has become part of my life now,” Varghese said. “This is my country now. There’s no turning back.”

Isabelle von Althen-Dagum, 49, Stony Brook

Country of origin: Canada

Dagum, a gastroenterologist at Stony Brook University Hospital Medical Center, and her husband, Alexander, a plastic surgeon, came to the United States in 2000 from Toronto. The two have since raised their children, ages 19, 18, and 13, in Stony Brook and have come to love the area where they live.

Dagum will be the first person in her immediate family to become an American citizen. For her, taking the oath on July 12 in Central Islip will mean that she will finally be able to participate fully in the country that she has called home for the last 10 years.

She said voicing her opinion through the ballot box will mean that she will “truly be a part of the country.”

“We pay taxes but we can’t vote in any school elections,” said Dagum. “It bothers me that I don’t have a say on what’s going on.” Dagum said she believes in a form of amnesty for illegal residents. She said once people are in the United States working and contributing to the economy, they should be given a legal status.

“We get all the benefits of having immigrants working here, but we don’t give them anything and I think it’s wrong,” she said. “I feel badly for them.”

Andre Kesler, 23, Central Islip

Country of origin: Jamaica

At the naturalization service Friday on Ellis Island, Kesler sat in a wooden chair used more than 100 years ago by European immigrants and remembered why his family immigrated when he was 10.

“It was very dangerous. There was a lot of shootings and killings,” Kesler said, recalling his upbringing in Kingston, Jamaica. “At night that is all you heard — gunshots and people dying.”

Now, the U.S. Army specialist and Suffolk County Community College student said being a citizen puts him one step closer to accomplishing his American dream — to become a police officer for either the Suffolk County or Nassau County police department.

“I like being in uniform and to help people,” he said. Then, remembering the gunfire that surrounded him as a boy, he added, “I want to be on the other side — the good side.”

Vidal Hernandez, 40, Huntington Station

Country of origin: El Salvador

Hernandez, a construction worker, wants to become a citizen because he believes that being classified only as a lawful permanent resident isn’t enough for him anymore. He is looking forward to voting for the first time as an American.

“I want to be heard,” Hernandez said. “For me, having a voice is a big thing.”

Hernandez, who came to the United States 24 years ago during a civil war that tore through his home country, has strong feelings about a controversial Arizona law cracking down on illegal immigration. Critics say the law unfairly targets Hispanics.

“A lot of people don’t think we are valuable here, but we are,” Hernandez said. “We do a lot of jobs that a lot of people don’t want.”

Yaniri Canales, 26, Westbury

Country of origin: Peru

Canales, who came to the U.S. five years ago, said she dreams of becoming a heart surgeon. Currently a liberal-arts major at Nassau Community College, Canales is thinking about attending Stony Brook University to start her medical career.

“I’m feeling very excited and happy to be here,” she said Friday, minutes before the Ellis Island ceremony. “I am ready to get working on my goals: finish school, become a doctor and raise a family on Long Island.”

Edwin Yoon, 29, New Hyde Park

Country of origin: South Korea

Since moving with his parents and sister to the U.S. when he was 4, Yoon said he always has felt like an American. “Just not on paper,” he said.

When he was a child, Yoon and his family, who had only South Korean passports, stood on long lines at the airport during summer trips to their native country. These days, the lines for noncitizens aren’t as long, but Yoon, who is getting married in October, must have his fingerprints electronically scanned at airports.

“When I came back from Aruba last year, they looked at my passport and my green card and they put my fingerprints on there,” he said. “I asked my fiance, because she’s a \[U.S.\] citizen, ‘Did you have to put your fingerprints on this?’ And she said, ‘No.’”

Yoon, assistant project manager at a hardware distribution company, said there was no particular incident that prompted him to seek citizenship. He said he applied because his father and friends thought it was a good idea.

“At the immigration office,” said Yoon, “the lady said, ‘What took you so long?’”

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