By ILANA YERGIN
Salah El Machi, from Morocco, Francesca Boffi, from Italy, and Carlton Willesley Brown, from Jamaica (from left) receive their naturalization certificates in a ceremony Sept. 20 at the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson, Md. (Photo by Maryland Newsline's Ilana Yergin)
TOWSON (Sept. 22, 2010)—Francesca Boffi, 45, has been inching toward this day for nearly 20 years.
Born in Italy, Boffi came to the United States in January 1992 for graduate school. She moved to Baltimore three years later to work on a thesis in astronomy.
She earned her degree, met and married Massimo Stiavelli, 49, another Italian, and got a job at the Space Science Telescope Institute in Baltimore, where she is now a manager.
On Monday, she became an American.
"America has given a lot to me, so I'm very proud to be here," Boffi said, as she joined 19 other immigrants from 17 countries who gathered with friends and family to become naturalized U.S. citizens.
Boffi sat in the front row at the Hampton National Historic Site, holding a small American flag and some paperwork. Her face reflected the excitement and gravity of the day.
"It's like at the end of a very long process, of which I've always believed very strongly in," she said.
"It's a long process, but it's a good one," said Carlton Willesley Brown, 57, from Jamaica, who sat next to Boffi during the ceremony.
The process to become a U.S. citizen is lengthy and is not necessary to live here permanently.
Legal immigrants first come to the country on an immigrant visa. Usually a family member or job acts as a sponsor.
A green card, or permanent residency card, is required to stay in the United States permanently. After at least five years, a person can apply for citizenship. This process takes about four to five months and involves an English and civics test, an interview with an immigration officer and a stringent background check.
Around 600,000 people naturalize each year, but that number goes up and down in waves, said Christopher Bentley, press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security.
Monday's ceremony in Towson was one of 63 held across the nation between Sept. 13 and 24 to celebrate Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services teamed up with the National Park Service so that about 9,000 new citizens could be naturalized at historic, national parks, including the Lincoln Memorial and the Grand Canyon.
The ceremony in Towson began promptly as the Navy Color Guard from Ft. Meade marched the flags in. Local singer Quiana Johnson filled the tiny, sun-filled room with her voice as she sang the National Anthem.
After a keynote speech from Don Swain, the deputy executive secretary of DHS, and presentations from different members of the National Park Service, the Oath of Allegiance was administered to the 20 candidates.
"I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America," the candidates repeated in unison. When they finished the oath, they waved American flags in the air.
Each candidate was called up by name to receive the certificate of citizenship and pose for pictures.
"It was wonderful," said Brown. "It felt like the clouds opened."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.