By Jaimie Julia Winters
It took Prashant Nikam 21 years to take the final step to become a citizen of the United States. Last week, the India native joined 28 others from 17 different countries at the Montclair Museum of Art at a naturalization ceremony. It is the second year in a row the ceremony has been held at the museum for local Essex County residents to take the oath of allegiance. The ages of the new citizens ranged from 24 to 54 and the countries represented included Bangladesh, Bulgaria, China, Ecuador, France, Guyana, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Liberia, Mexico, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Poland and Taiwan.
To become a U.S. citizen one must be 18 years old or older, be a permanent resident or have a Green Card for at least five years, lived in the state for three months, be able to read, write, and speak basic English, have a basic understanding of U.S. history and government, be a person of good moral character and demonstrate an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution.
The three-month process consists of speaking, reading, writing and civics tests.
Nikan said the test was fairly easy after living in the U.S. for 21 years. He came here on a student visa to attend graduate school in Ohio and graduated from Wharton MBA Program in Pennsylvania. Life went on for him, as he became a cancer researcher at Merck, married and had two children. This year he decided it was time to become a citizen of the country that afforded him so much opportunity.
His family couldn’t be prouder. His children, five and seven, were born in the United States and waved their flags continuously during the ceremony and joined the children of other new citizens in the front to sing “God Bless America.” Nikan’s wife is also working on her citizenship.
He admits that denouncing his native country did play a part on why the road to citizenship was so long.
“It was in the back of my mind that I was actually denouncing India,” Nikan said. “But America has given us opportunities I would not have had in India. It was time for me to take the oath to America.”
Of the people taking their oath last week, only those from Bulgaria, Colombia, Ecuador, France, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, Poland and Taiwan will become dual citizens.
Bangladesh, China, Guyana, Haiti, India, Liberia, Philippines and Russia do not allow natives to carry dual citizenship.
The 29 may come from different countries and backgrounds, but on June 22 they were one in their diversity and in their pledge to the United States.
Together, they took the final step to attain citizenship: the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.
“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…”
For 220 years, since 1790 the United States has welcomed people from other nationalities to become citizens. It wasn’t until 1929 that the oath acquired a standard text.
After a video message from President Donald Trump was shown, Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson spoke to the new citizens encouraging them not to shirk away from tough discussions that are being carried across America today.
“America is wrestling with identity, grappling with the powers of legislation and the media. Don’t shirk away from these discussions, some of which are not pleasant. Instead, let them empower you,” Jackson said. “We need your vision to be a part of these discussions.”
Another new U.S. citizen from Guyana, here eight years and who did not want to give her name, said it was one of the best days of her life.
At the end of the ceremony Nikam and some of the other new citizens headed over to the League of Women voters table to register to vote. “Just in time for the November elections,” one woman said.
By the numbers:
• Each year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services welcomes approximately 700,000 to 750,000 citizens during naturalization ceremonies across the U.S.
• In 2016, 73 percent of all persons naturalizing resided in 10 states (in descending order): California, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, Virginia and Maryland.
• New York-Newark-Jersey City had 16.3 percent; Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, Calif. 8.2 percent; and Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, Fla. (7.9 percent)
• The top countries of origin for naturalization are in the following order: Mexico, India, Philippines, People’s Republic of China and Cuba.