Justin Williams made the short drive from his home in Arlington to Mason Neck on Saturday morning, arriving alone at the historic Gunston Hall estate shortly before 11 a.m. to finally become a naturalized United States citizen. Most didn’t recognize him as a member of the Washington Capitals as he found his seat near the front steps of George Mason’s former home, where he shielded his eyes with sunglasses as the outdoor naturalization ceremony began.
Williams wore a dark suit with a purple tie and carried a white envelope that contained a card engraved with the oath of allegiance, which he soon recited with 51 others who hailed from 24 countries. Those lands were called out one by one during the ceremony, and when Williams’s native Canada was announced, he stood. He left his home country when he was 16 years old to pursue his dream of playing professional hockey in the United States, and while it has taken him on a 19-year odyssey — with stops in Philadelphia; Raleigh, N.C., and Los Angeles — he did not choose to become a dual citizen until last fall, around the start of his second season in Washington.
He was the first person to receive his naturalization certificate. “Justin Craig Williams,” the moderator introduced him as, and Williams smiled as he clutched his certificate and miniature American flag. Then he sat down and clapped as the other candidates — from Australia, Iran and Mexico, among others — received their paperwork.
“It’s an honor,” Williams, 35, said. “I mean, it doesn’t change my life at all. It just makes it a little easier in the customs line when I come here. But for a lot of people it will, and that’s important and it’s really cool to be a part of it.”
After the ceremony, an elderly woman approached Williams and asked him for a picture. Before she did, she muttered: “We’re glad to have a Canadian coming down this path. A lot of Americans are going that way. Good choice.”
“Well I have both now,” Williams said with a grin. He wasn’t motivated by the current political climate in the United States when he begin this process nearly eight months ago, he said. He’s always identified as both a Canadian and an American, and this was simply a chance to make one of those identities official.
“I’ve been living in the United States since I was 16, more than half of my life, so I think it was just something nice to do. I mean, my wife is American, my kids are American, so it was important for me to get my passport,” Williams said. “And at the same time, it was important for me that both countries, Canada and the U.S., they accept dual citizens. And that’s important to me.”
For years, Williams has watched other Canadian teammates receive their dual citizenship. “I know our coach, Barry Trotz, has his. Everyone has their own unique experiences with it,” he said, acknowledging that when he arrived in Washington as a free agent two years ago, he figured he was in a fitting place to apply to become a United States citizen. The process can last more than six months and requires the candidate to demonstrate an ability to read, write and speak English, complete a test on history, civics and form of government in the United States and interview to determine eligibility for citizenship.
“Most people will count it in the top 10 special days of their lives. When they graduated, when they got married, when they had their first baby, when they naturalized,” said Sarah Taylor, a director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Washington office. “It all goes into that bucket of really special days.”
Taylor, who helped lead Saturday’s ceremony, was also a part of the naturalization of Washington Redskins offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio last year. Williams’s presence Saturday was a reminder for Taylor that people who get naturalized truly come from every walk of life. She and her staff also snapped a photo with Williams, who had a few Capitals fans approach afterward. One of the fans told him that her husband had been a season-ticket holder for 42 years. She joked that she wanted Williams and Capitals to win just one Stanley Cup after being ousted again in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals this spring.
“Actually it was a great year, it’s just,” she said before stopping.
“Not that great,” he said. “Thank you.”
Williams admitted that he’s not sure what the next month will bring. He’s an unrestricted free agent and is set to begin talks with management next week. Wherever he ends up or whenever his career might end, Williams said he is leaning toward living in the United States.
“You can’t anticipate where your life is going to bring you, you just go out and do it. Life has its ups and downs, twists and turns, and I never envisioned myself living in California, or Raleigh, but I have,” he said. “You just mold yourself into the person you are and the life you live.”