GREEN BAY — Kham Phommaleuth smiled as he held the certificate of naturalization in his hand. Just minutes earlier, he and 34 other immigrants from around the world recited an oath of allegiance as U.S. citizens. The oath took place during a ceremony Oct. 27 at the Brown County Courthouse.
Phommaleuth, 51, came to the United States in 1986 as a refugee from Laos. “I have been in this country for 31 years,” he told The Compass. “We (his parents and two sisters) came as refugees. It was a war at that time and we had to evacuate the country.”
The native Laotian has lived in Green Bay since arriving in the United States and has worked at Valley Packaging Supply for 25 years.
Through the assistance of So Thao, an immigration counselor at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay, Phommaleuth began the process of gaining citizenship last February.
“I’ve been here so long, I don’t think that I am going anywhere else,” he said, when asked why he applied for citizenship. “I like the United States. I like everything. They have the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion.”
Overseeing the ceremony was Judge William C. Griesbach, Chief U.S. District Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Griesbach told the candidates for citizenship and their families and friends that it was a privilege for him to administer the oath of citizenship.
“My hope is that all of you will not only enjoy the blessings and privileges that come with citizenship of this great country, but that you will also take seriously the obligations that all citizens have: to act responsibly toward one another and contribute the best you can to the general welfare of the nation,” said Griesbach.
The citizenship ceremonies are usually held at the U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building in Milwaukee, according to Peter Weiss, living justice advocate for Catholic Charities.
“Hosting a ceremony in Green Bay is a courtesy to people in this part of the state,” said Weiss. “This ceremony came about in part through the efforts of Laurie Martinez, one of our immigration counselors. She worked with staff of the immigration office in Milwaukee to arrange the ceremony.”
Weiss, along with Martinez and Ted Phernetton, director of Catholic Charities, attended the ceremony.
“I was moved by the ceremony and the deep meaning behind the oath and the judge’s welcoming words,” said Phernetton. “The personal journey and commitment that those 35 people had made in order to receive something that I have been given, simply by being born here in the United States, touched me.”
Griesbach set the tone for the ceremony as he explained the privilege, honor and duty of American citizenship.
“The vast majority of those who were born here can see in your experience the history of their own families who arrived here, from countries all over the world, for many of the same reasons that brought you here,” he said, “the right to speak and write freely, to worship God as we choose, and educate our children and the opportunity for economic prosperity.”
Griesbach said these privileges are often taken for granted by people born in the United States.
“You demonstrate once again for all of us that United States citizenship is indeed a great privilege and an honor.”
Before asking the group to stand and recite the oath, Griesbach explained that it included two parts. The first part is a renunciation of allegiance to their former country. However, he said, this did not include renouncing their culture.
“In giving up your allegiance to your former country, you are not required or expected to give up the traditions, culture or heritage,” he said. “One of the things that has made this country great is that it has been and continues to be the beneficiary of so many rich and beautiful cultural traditions from around the world. We are very much a nation of immigrants … and when we are at our best, we continue to learn from and respect one another and the diverse traditions and cultures so many of us have brought with us.”
The second part of the oath includes supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution and laws of the United States. Griesbach reminded the candidates that the Constitution “does not guarantee anyone happiness. Instead, it guarantees all of us the right to pursue happiness.”
He then invited the 35 men and women to stand and take their oath of citizenship.
After the oath, Griesbach told the newest U.S. citizens to “take full advantage of the freedom and opportunity that this country affords to all of its citizens,” including the right to vote. Members of the League of Women Voters were on hand to help the group register as first-time voters.
“Continue to educate yourself and your families about the wonderful history and heritage of your new country,” added Griesbach. “Appreciate the freedom that you have to seek happiness and fulfillment, limited only by your own God-given talents and desires and the obligation each of us has to do what is right and just. Do not take this freedom and opportunity for granted.
“Those of you who have lived under oppression know better than I that the blessings of liberty can be taken away by tyranny or given away by a people who have allowed themselves to be lulled into complacency by preoccupation with material and transient things of this world,” added Griesbach. “Be ever vigilant to the need for all of us to remain informed and to work and preserve and protect this great nation.”
Weiss said that witnessing the citizenship ceremony helped put a face on immigrants and refugees, which reflects the goal of the Share the Journey initiative that Pope Francis announced Sept. 27.
“Share the Journey is meant to urge Catholics to understand and get to know refugees and migrants who have fled poverty, hunger, violence, persecution and the effects of climate change in their homeland,” according to Catholic News Service.
Share the Journey “is about really seeing the human side to these immigration issues,” said Weiss. “I think when you see that human side of things, it changes your perspective on where do I really come out on this issue? When I can see in that person that this could be me, now I have a different view of it. … It’s about being able to step back and say, ‘OK, let’s just not look at (immigration) in terms of numbers, in terms of political rhetoric, but really what’s the human face to all of this.”