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New Americans swear oaths as the government tries to make a dent in the vast backlog of future citizens.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nadia Frank, right, brought her mother Olga Leontyeva, who was becoming a citizen after eight years in the United States.
Five hundred immigrants were sworn in as new U.S. citizens on Thursday, June 16, including one 92-year-old woman from Ukraine.

The naturalization ceremony, held at the Oregon Convention center, also had room on the bleachers for 1,200 friends and family. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services aims to hold four such ceremonies this year to move the backlog of swearings-in that was caused by COVID-19. The federal agency's office in the Pearl District can handle only 50 at a time. Attendees were encouraged to dress festively or traditionally. Many wore west African printed fabrics or polished dress shoes.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nadia Frank and her mother Olga Leontyeva, celebrating Olga's big day. Citizens took their oath to the constitution, swearing no more allegiance to "foreign princes and potentates" and promising to fight or do non-combatant work for the U.S. if required. They also pledged allegiance to the flag and listened to a choir singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful," before lining up for their certificates of citizenship, which can be used to get a U.S. passport.

The 500 in attendance heard a speech about the value of voting from Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, and a personal tale from Deputy Secretary Cheryl Myers, who was adopted and who said she had her Asian identity constantly questioned.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Five hundred immigrants were sworn in as new U.S. citizens Thursday at the Oregon Convention Center, including one 92-year-old woman from Ukraine, Olga Leontyeva, who was becoming a citizen after eight years in the States.

'I wanted to become a citizen a long time ago'

Nadia Frank brought her mother Olga Leontyeva, 92, who was becoming a citizen after eight years in the United States.

Leontyeva moved to Portland from her hometown Korosten, Ukraine, to follow her children. Frank and two siblings came to the United States as religious refugees from Ukraine in 1989 after a spell in Latvia. Lutheran Family Services helped find her a sponsor. "I'd never heard of Portland, Oregon," said Frank with a laugh, but it's been home for 29 years.

Leontyeva attends Sulamita Slavic Evangelical Church in Fairview.

"I came to be with my children," she said, using her daughter Nadia Frank as an interpreter. "I don't know why it took eight years; it takes the paperwork that long. I was tired of waiting, I wanted to become a citizen a long time ago."

Leontyeva was wearing a traditional platok headscarf and a blue dress. "She always wants to look very put together," said her daughter.

Frank's sister helped with the paperwork, which went back and forth many times, because Leontyeva had nine children. The family had to gather birth certificates from all of them, as well as the death certificate of Leontyeva's husband.

Leontyeva has a sister in Kiev, whom she speaks with each month, using free calling on the Viber app on her children's phones.

"It's not safe to live in Kiev, they live in fear in a high story building," Leontyeva said of the current Russia-Ukraine war.

Leontyeva remembers the Germans invading her town in World War II and the Soviets pushing them out, bringing in the reign of Stalin. "Everything was burned down, bombs were falling on our homes, and everything was on fire, we had to start all over again," when the Nazis came, Leontyeva said. "Praise God, God helped us."

A brother doing military service in Germany sent money home so they could build a two-room log cabin for Leontyeva and seven of her children. Under Stalin, they could not go to church, but they had services in their homes.

Asked how her life would be different now as a U.S. citizen, Leontyeva said "I hope for the best."

"She's 92 so she's not traveling outside of her home and the park," explained Frank. As for voting, Leontyeva said, "I don't know who the candidates are, but my children can help me with that."

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Five hundred immigrants were sworn in as new U.S. citizens Thursday at the Oregon Convention Center, to relieve a backlog of cases.

'The queue … keeps getting longer'

Quinn Andrus, community relations officer with the Citizenship and Immigration Services, and mistress of ceremonies on Thursday, read out the names of all 80 countries represented by the people. Each time, they stood for applause. The biggest groups were from Mexico and Ukraine. Babies cried and children played in the huge Hall D of the convention center as the ceremony went on. At the end, people race-walked to the back of the room to join five color-coded lines to get the final paperwork.

"Applications always increase, and the queue of people who have completed all of the requirements, and all they have to do is take the oath, keeps getting longer," Andrus said. She said the big gathering was more of a ceremony than what happens in their small office.

Andrus studied Russian history and linguistics at UCLA and was a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department in Rumania, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She reminded the room that although they had just "severed" themselves from their former citizenship, they had not severed connection to their culture and history.

Explaining voting in clear and simple terms, Secretary of State Fagan, who was elected in 2020, told the crowd "Voting is a right, not a requirement; voting is an opportunity, not an obligation," and she pointed out the voter registration tables in the lobby.

"You have all gone through things much more difficult than just registering to vote, and all that you need is your name and your address to sign a voter registration card outside," Fagan said.

The issue of who votes, and whether those votes count, is a national conversation right now. The lunchtime ceremony coincided with televised hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, which were not on screens in the building, and people's phones were silenced. On June 16 the committee presented evidence that Donald Trump tried to convince Vice President Pence to illegally delay the certification of the 2020 general election and interrupt the peaceful transfer of power, but that Pence refused and the riot at the Capitol was put down.

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