Pence addresses 16 new citizens at pre-Independence Day naturalization ceremony

Pence addresses 16 new citizens at pre-Independence Day naturalization ceremony
© White House

Juan Carlos Gutierrez Zepeda strode across the stage in the South Court Auditorium near the White House on Thursday carrying a miniature American flag and smiling minutes after taking the oath of allegiance to formally become a United States citizen.

The native of Chile approached Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad WolfChad WolfTravel restrictions with Mexico, Canada extended to mid-September Schumer calls for Wolf, Cuccinelli to step down after watchdog says their appointments violate law Government watchdog finds top Trump DHS officials are ineligible for their positions MORE, paused, leaned in, and the two bumped elbows.

"These are congratulations in the age of COVID," acting Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli quipped as he looked on.

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Sixteen people from 12 different countries officially became U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Vice President Pence and other government officials were on hand to offer congratulations and sing the praises of the honorees.

The celebration, which coincided with the Independence Day holiday this upcoming Saturday, took on a bit of a different tone as the United States and the world grapple with a number of large-scale crises.

Coronavirus cases are spiking in several states and some of the countries the individuals were born in, and protests over racial injustice have gripped the nation in recent weeks. Pence seemed to nod to both issues in his remarks.

"There’s no naturalization that ever occurs in this country that isn’t of enormous importance to the life of this nation. Because apart from our Native American brothers and sisters, the reality is that all of us came here from somewhere else," Pence said.

"Some were brought here against their will. Some came to this continent to seek freedom and liberty," he added.

"You come at a time of unique challenges in America and across the wider world as we deal with an unprecedented pandemic," Pence told the new citizens. "But I think the world has seen and you will continue to be a part of a story that demonstrates the resilience and the strength of the American people."

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Pence pointed to a strong jobs report released earlier Thursday that showed the country added 4.8 million jobs in June as proof "we're reopening America again."

The new citizens originally came from Canada, Chile, Côte d'Ivoire, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, New Zealand, Nigeria, Philippines and Turkey. Pence singled out three of them by name to highlight aspects of their stories. 

He highlighted Olanrewaju Akinremi, a Nigerian-born man who worked as a security officer and hoped to become a police officer. He also mentioned Fatoumata Ouattara, a native of Côte d'Ivoire, who said becoming an American citizen "is freedom."

Pence was introduced by Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoWaPost gives three Pinocchios to McConnell challenger for China attack Trump's contempt for advice and consent Wider impact of COVID: Some voids will be forever, some need not be MORE, who is a naturalized citizen herself. She recounted her family's journey to New York on a cargo ship when she was 8 years old, recalling the mix of excitement and anxiety she felt.

"I am here to affirm to you that your hard work and sacrifices are well worth it," Chao said. "This is a wonderful country with so many opportunities."