They did so at a site where the U.S. government once held thousands of its citizens and took away their rights.
Seven people became American citizens during a unique naturalization ceremony in front of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. The interpretive center, off U.S. 14-A west of Ralston, sits just below the plateau where thousands of Japanese Americans were held by the federal government during World War II.
“I think that this place really represents hope for the future,” said Shirley Ann Higuchi, chair of the board that oversees the center. “I welcome all the new citizens here today because the best place to be a citizen is in the United States of America.”
Higuchi’s grandparents were confined at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center amid government fears that they and other Japanese immigrants in America couldn’t be trusted. The Heart Mountain internment camp also is where Higuchi’s parents met.
“You can do anything you want,” Higuchi told the new citizens. “And I know that’s true, because when I look at my parents and grandparents, they were able to succeed (after being confined). They were able to start over, and they were able to achieve.”
Park County is one of the only counties in the region to offer formal naturalization ceremonies for new citizens; District Court Judge Steven Cranfill and Clerk of District Court Joyce Boyer periodically host ceremonies at the Cody courtroom featuring speakers, music and gifts.
Tuesday’s ceremony was unique in its location and list of distinguished speakers, but as was conveyed in their remarks, it’s citizenship itself that’s truly special.
“It is an extraordinary thing that you do today as you embrace our country,” former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Cody told the new citizens.
Pete Simpson, Alan’s brother and a member of the board that oversees the Heart Mountain learning center, said he was humbled by the immigrants’ dedication and determination.
“Your presence here renews our own sense of civic pride and purpose, and we need that — especially today when the things that divide us often seem to overwhelm the things that unite us,” Pete Simpson said.
Earlier in his remarks, he said the United States was built into the most prosperous and powerful nation by a diverse mix of people who immigrated here at one time or another.
“That’s why this is a big day,” Pete Simpson said.
“You,” he told the seven people, “are about to ... become the newest (generation) of the American dream, and the builders and guardians of American’s promise of equal opportunity.”
The seven new Americans — formerly citizens of Mexico, Canada, Columbia, Guatemala and the Philippines — expressed a willingness to take on that challenge after taking their oaths of allegiance to their new country.
“I just pray that God would just give me the opportunity to be a role model and to be an example to the community and to help the United States be the best country that it is,” said Jesus J. Davila of Worland, who came here from Mexico.
Marisela Castro of Greybull came here from Chihuahua, Mexico, in 2007 looking for a better life and better opportunities. She said she’d worked hard to get where she is today and is thankful for the “many wonderful things” this country has given her.
“We now all know that anything is possible if we try to be a better citizen for our country,” Castro said.
In contrast to the other new citizens, who generally had moved to the United States in recent years, Cody resident Dave Smith came here from Canada in 1975.
“You can see that I don’t make quick decisions,” he joked, drawing laughter from the large crowd.
Smith said he decided to become a citizen in part because of the freedoms Americans enjoy and to “just give something back to the country which has given me so much.” He specifically cited the right to vote, along with the duty to become eligible for jury duty. Smith also expressed thanks about having been able to work, make friends and raise a family in this country.
The thankfulness was universally shared among the new citizens, who also included Ceilo Judith Givilancz of Jackson, Hugo Leonel Najera of Riverton and Merry Mayor Glass of Cody.
“I’m very proud to be a United States citizen,” said Raquel Caro, who came to the United States from Mexico in 2008. She’s lived in Powell for the past three years, coming to the Big Horn Basin with her husband and son to be closer to her parents.
Alan Simpson appeared to anticipate the citizens’ expressions of pride.
“You’re proud of America; we’re ever more proud of you. You stir our hearts, and you moisten our eyes, and you tingle our skin (because) you ... chose to leave the place of your birth and you chose us for your new home,” Simpson said. “Welcome home. God bless America.”
Two other individuals from Powell were scheduled to become citizens at the ceremony, but ended up not attending. Judge Cranfill said they had passed the test, and could take the oath as citizens at another time and place.