CNJ staff photo: Kevin Wilson Airman 1st Class Michael Lazarus, right, is handed a certificate signifying his naturalization as an American citizen from Elizabeth Lee of the United States Citizen and Immigration Service office of Albuquerque Monday at Cannon Air Force Base.
By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer
Now it’s their country, too.
After working for years to achieve an honor some are born with, five Cannon Air Force Base airmen on Monday became American citizens through a ceremony held at the Landing Zone.
Coming from countries like Trinidad-Tobago, the Phillipines and Ethiopia, the quintet joined hundreds before them at Cannon Air Force Base and thousands before them nationwide — serving the country on the battlefield before they’re regarded as Americans.
“What you all have done is exceedingly special,” Cannon Commander Col. Stephen A. Clark said. “The five of you have already done more than 99 percent of your fellow countrymen will do for their country.”
President George W. Bush issued an executive order in 2002, and Congress further modified immigration laws in 2004 to make it easier for foreign-born U.S. troops to naturalize. Since then, Elijah Williams, a contract employee for 27th Special Operations Mission Support, has helped about 150 Cannon personnel gain citizenship.
Civilians must wait five years after gaining legal residence to start the process.
“The path is shorter — one year — for those who join the military, serve with honor and defend a country they are not even a citizen of,” said Peter Rechkemmer, an immigration service officer with the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services office of Albuquerque.
Williams said he’s always sent individual personnel to Albuquerque for the oath, but the field office took advantage of the timing of five eligible personnel and planned the first ceremony of its kind at Cannon.
“For me,” Williams said, “being retired military, it feels good because giving them citizenship, that opens a lot of doors for them.”
With their right hands raised, the five took the oath of citizenship as read by Albuquerque USCIS Field Office Director Elizabeth N. Lee.
They were men like Airman 1st Class Yetbark Berhe, who came to America from Ethiopia six days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks and soon decided he wanted to join the military. They were men like Airman 1st Class Rafael Jamandre, who hopes to use artistic talent to perhaps be an architect someday.
“Everything’s laid out for you,” said Jamandre, who came from the Phillipines. “It’s up to you to persevere to get everything you dream of.”
The five men heard a recorded message of congratulations from President Barack Obama telling them they now played a part in writing the next great chapter in the American story.
The ceremony concluded with Clark giving each a commander’s coin — something he’s given to only three other people since taking over command of Cannon in June. He said the award was necessary because they put service before citizenship.
“Your service was not only a pathway to citizenship,” Clark said. “It was an honor.”