Tuesday, April 6, 2021
Ana Rodriguez Soto - Florida Catholic newspaper
Photography: ARSoto & CCJarro | FC
MIAMI | Archbishop Thomas Wenski put it best: Immigration is “your history ... my history ... our history.”
That was true not just for 10 new Americans who swore their oath of citizenship last month, but also for many of the government officials who administered or witnessed that oath.
“My parents were processed there when they came from Cuba in 1969,” said Eileen Lopez Tome, pointing to Miami’s Freedom Tower. “My mom was eight months pregnant — with me.”
Lopez Tome is now deputy director of the Miami and Caribbean District of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. She was one of several high-ranking officials from the district and the Miami field office who attended the March 24, 2021 naturalization ceremony, held outdoors on the grassy corner of Bayfront Park where the sculpture called “Angels Unawares” has been on display since mid-February. (It will leave Miami for New Orleans April 8.)
The presence of the sculpture, with the silhouette of the Freedom Tower rising behind it, was the reason why the Archdiocese of Miami, through Catholic Legal Services, partnered with USCIS for the ceremony. Archbishop Wenski was the keynote speaker.
He alluded to the migratory history of humanity, the history of South Florida, and his own background as the son of a Polish immigrant to highlight the eloquent truth depicted in the sculpture. “We’re all in the same boat.”
Ana Santiago, public affairs officer for the Miami and Caribbean district, also noted the symbolism. “This today is a very special place because of the sculpture here and the significance of Freedom Tower,” she said. “And because, in the end, it’s about these individuals achieving their American dream.”
For Michael Pimenta, a 32-year-old restaurant manager and native of Brazil who has been in the U.S. for 10 years, that dream consists of being here “with all my family, to get all the opportunities in this country, to be free,” he said.
Sitting near him was Alejandro Inga, 44, a native of Peru who came to the U.S. in 2006 to study for a master’s degree in business administration. He has lived in Chicago, New York and now Miami. “I got a job and then I stayed,” he said. “I made my life here.”
Something similar happened to Carole Perez, a native of France who has lived in Miami for 32 years. An interior designer by profession, she initially came to visit. Then she met the man who would become her husband. Together they built a life here, including a 22-year-old U.S.-born daughter.
“I was always postponing” filling out the paperwork to become a citizen, Perez said, but she found the time during the pandemic-caused lockdown. “I said I have to do it.”
None of them had really noticed the “Angels Unawares” sculpture until that moment, even though Inga lives five minutes away and Perez frequently drives by.
“I never really stopped and looked at the statue,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
After the 10 immigrants’ dream of U.S. citizenship became a reality, the man who administered their oath said he also felt honored to take part.
“At that moment I just participated in someone’s dream,” said Brett Rinehart, USCIS district director for Miami and the Caribbean. “And they became a citizen. It gives me goosebumps.”
The agency, part of Homeland Security, swears in hundreds of new citizens daily, conducting more than 10,000 naturalization ceremonies each year, according to its website. Sometimes the ceremonies take place in large venues such as national parks or stadiums, but most happen in field offices spread across the country. In fiscal year 2019, the agency naturalized 843,593 people.
The auditorium in the Miami field office, at N.W. Seventh Avenue and 88th Street, had been holding ceremonies for groups of 150 new citizens three times a day before the pandemic hit last March, according to Kurt Vicha, director of the office. The swearing-in ceremonies resumed in June but on a smaller scale to allow for social distancing. Now they naturalize about 50 people at a time, 11 times a day.
“That way we keep our numbers going and our momentum going,” said Santiago.
Rinehart has been naturalizing people for 12 years, and he knows exactly how many dreams that represents: 34,736 so far. “I know that because it matters to me,” he said. “In my heart, it matters.”