Tears flowed and flags waved as 200 New Yorkers became US citizens Saturday during a special naturalization ceremony at the city's famed Ellis Island, which once welcomed thousands of immigrants daily.
Citizenship candidates hailing from about 60 different countries filed into the former immigration station's great hall, where some 12 million people entered the United States over the course of six decades in the early 20th century.
The ceremony, the first of its kind on the island since 2016, marked the anniversary of the constitution's signing in 1787 and kicks off the government's annual "citizenship week."
The 200 new US citizens are among 19,000 that will be sworn in across the country this week, US Citizenship and Immigration Services said.
As sunlight streamed through the enormous arched windows, the emotion in the room was palpable as the group took an oath of allegiance to the United States, less than a mile away from the Statue of Liberty.
US Attorney General Merrick Garland presided, telling the newest American citizens: "This country -- your country -- wholeheartedly welcomes you."
The head of the Justice Department choked back tears recounting how his own relatives fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe.
He said two of his grandmother's siblings were unable to escape, and died in the Holocaust.
"I have often thought about what members of my family felt as they came through buildings like this one," he said. "And I have often thought about what their decisions meant for my own life."
Before the ceremony, Lovell Brown, a 31-year-old originally from Jamaica, told AFP she was excited to be on the island for the first time for "such a big moment."
"I just feel like I'm actually a part of the United States now," said the teacher, who has lived in the United States since she was 17.
"It makes me feel like I belong here."
- Immigration row -
The ceremony took place under a cloud of increasingly politicized controversy over arrivals of undocumented migrants in the United States.
It came a few days after some 50 migrants arrived unexpectedly on Martha's Vineyard, a tony resort island in Massachusetts where the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, had sent them in a highly political move.
Right-wing American governors have been busing, and now flying, migrants to cities largely populated by Democrats as a means of denouncing President Joe Biden's immigration policy, which they say has allowed undocumented migrants to cross the border with Mexico in large numbers.
On Thursday morning, Texas's Republican Governor Greg Abbott sent two buses carrying migrants not far from the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, a place chosen deliberately as she is overseeing the divisive issue of immigration for the White House.
Garland broadly alluded to the country's political tensions.
"Overcoming the current polarization in our public life is, and will continue to be, a difficult task," he said. "But we cannot overcoming it by ignoring it."
The pandemic sparked citizenship application backlogs and slowed the naturalization process.
According to the most recent annual report from the US Department of Homeland Security, 814,000 people became citizens in 2021, up 30 percent from 628,000 the year before, when the Covid-19 epidemic brought much of public life to a halt.
- 'I found my home' -
Umaru Kabir Ahmed, 63, has lived in the United States since 1989 after leaving his native Nigeria.
The Bronx resident, who works in a nursing home, said he first applied to become a citizen in 2012.
"I'm happy," he said, explaining that his new documents reflect the American sensibility he's cultivated over his three decades here.
"A lot has changed -- the way I talk, the way I eat, the way I sleep, the way I dress," he said.
Some 40 percent of current US citizens can trace ancestry to Ellis Island, which opened in 1892.
Today it is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, accessible to the public by ferry and managed by the National Park Service.
At its peak in the early 20th century, thousands of people passed through Ellis Island daily -- waiting in long lines for medical and legal inspections that sometimes resulted in detention, separated families, or denial of entry.
The naturalization ceremony's contrast to the conditions immigrants faced then wasn't lost on Warren Lawson, a 44-year-old from South Africa and Britain who has lived in the United States since 2016.
He said he felt lucky to be on the island and "learn about the history and see it firsthand."
Lawson said he wanted citizenship because "this is probably the place that my kids are going to live for the rest of their lives, and I want to grow old in the same place as them."
"I found my home."