In the conference room of a Merrifield office building on a Tuesday afternoon, 79 people are gathered to take the last step on the path to U.S. citizenship. Tina Almond, a section chief of the Washington field office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service of the Department of Homeland Security, invites each applicant to raise a hand when his or her country of origin is called. “Argentina . . . Afghanistan . . . Bosnia,” Almond calls out.
Lorena Beverley, a kindergarten teacher in Carlin Springs Elementary’s English for Speakers of Other Languages/High-Intensity Language Training program, or ESOL/HILT, raises her hand when Almond calls out “Brazil.” Over her bright blue dress, Beverley wears the parrot green-and-yellow-splashed silk Brazilian flag draped around her shoulders like a scarf.
After Almond reads the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship, the assembled group stands to say the Pledge of Allegiance together. As the song “Proud to Be an American” plays over the speaker system, someone in the group of friends and family members observing the ceremony from the adjacent hallway sings along, shading the lyrics with unmistakable emotion and an equally unmistakable African accent: “. . . where at least I know I’m free.”
“Congratulations, you are now citizens,” Almond announces, as the room fills with applause. Last year, the regional Washington field office at Merrifield naturalized about 20,000 of the more than 778,000 new U.S. citizens nationwide last year. The people who became citizens Jan. 28 came to the United States from 39 countries, including China, the Sudan, Germany, Jordan and the Philippines.
“It never gets old,” CIS spokesman Dan Cosgrove said of the naturalization ceremonies. Cosgrove said the newly minted Americans often tell him they’re surprised at their emotional reactions. “Even for those who’ve been here a while, where you’d think it’s a formality, they get a lump in their throats. There’s a change.”
When the ceremony ended, Beverley’s husband, Jim, and son and daughter, Luke and Julia, greeted her with hugs of congratulations, along with Beverley’s friend Jessica West, who attended with daughter in tow. “I wouldn’t miss it,” West said.
It was important to Beverley that her kids attend the ceremony: “I wanted them to know that it’s a big deal for a lot of people,” she said. Luke, an eighth-grader at H-B Woodlawn, said he was pleased to witness it. “Finally, she’s a citizen. I’m proud of her,” he said. Jim, who works for the U.S. foreign aid agency Millennium Challenge, was pleased for his wife and all the new citizens. “For me, seeing this tapestry of different cultures all coming together, it’s very moving . . . it’s quintessentially American. And Lorena’s a part of that now.”
Afterward, Beverley returned to a party at home, where her friends and neighbors presented her with a cake, vegetable buffet and a U.S. flag made out of blueberries, strawberries and banana slices. Friends and neighbors stopped by to offer congratulations, filling the living and dining room of the Beverleys’ Colonial Arlington Forest house.
“Welcome to the club!” said friend Alejandra Kaplan, a Venezuela native who became a U.S. citizen 24 years ago.
Jim Beverley raised a champagne glass to toast his wife, who gave a short speech thanking her husband, children and friends. “This is a very special moment for me,” Lorena Beverley said. “As a child, I never thought I’d one day become an American — my dream was to go to France. Little did I know, when I went to France, I’d meet an American in Paris,” she joked.
She met her future husband in 1997, when she had traveled for postgraduate studies in psychology.Then a graduate student at Columbia University, he was on a short jaunt with a friend. They met on a Seine River boat trip on his last night in the city. The two talked for the entire ride and ate dinner afterward. By the following day, he was calling airlines to change his flight home so he could spend more time with her. The two were married the following year. They celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary in the fall.
Beverley could have filed for citizenship after marrying an American, but between raising two children and pursuing her education, life kept getting in the way. “The first time Obama was running, I thought, ‘Man, I really wish I could vote.’ And I thought, ‘Next time he runs, I will,’ but I was doing my masters then,” she said. Beverley, who switched from psychology to the special education field, worked as a special education teacher’s assistant at Barrett Elementary for eight years before completing her masters in ESOL/HILT education at Marymount in May. She then took her current job, teaching at Carlin Springs.
For all the celebrating, Beverley said she doesn’t feel like a real citizen yet. That moment still lies ahead. “The day that I vote,” she said. “It will be real the day that I vote.”