Emma Apayart’s father always told her the U.S. was the “land of honey.” Now, the honey tastes a little sweeter.
Apayart moved from the Philippines to the U.S. 10 years ago at the encouragement of her father. Monday morning, she stood in a crowd of hundreds at the Auditorium Theatre to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, officially becoming citizens.
“I’m very happy I’m an American citizen, finally!” said Apayart, 28. “I’m very grateful. … America is the land of honey, like my dad said. I still believe in that.”
In all, 472 new citizens were welcomed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker at the naturalization ceremony — the first held in the theater, a National Historic Landmark, at 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr.
The newly naturalized citizens were from 82 home countries, with India, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines among those most represented, according to Julie Hodek, public information officer for the U.S. District Court.
After the oath, Pritzker told the crowd of new citizens, families and friends of his own great-grandfather’s immigrant roots and search for a fresh start in Illinois.
“Whether you fled violence, like my great grandfather, whether you won the green card lottery, whether you came here for school, or for a job, or a loved one, or whether this is the only country that you’ve ever known, I am so very proud to stand beside you, as your fellow citizen,” Pritzker said. “Thank you for bringing the dream and your drive and your allegiance to the United States. You renew our faith in our future.”
Other speakers included U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., representatives from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer.
When the theater opened in 1889, the city was still reeling from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Pallmeyer said. The theater was intended to improve Chicago’s reputation and also help heal the wounds and divisions of the time.
Pallmeyer invited the new citizens to continue the theater’s legacy by exercising their rights as citizens.
“As I think about the origins of this theater, and the dreams that all of you have, I feel a sense of hope and promise,” Pallmeyer said. “I am calling on you, new citizens, to be the leaders that will help us heal our wounds and divisions.”
Most of the new citizens waited years, even decades, for this day.
Mosha Kakonge, 38, originally from Uganda, became a citizen Monday after living in Chicago for five years.
“I’m so happy. This is a big day for my life in the United States,” Kakonge, said. “I cannot show you, but my heart is so happy.”
Kakonge, who left family behind in Uganda, said he hopes his journey will show others at home that American citizenship is possible: “Maybe now, my family will come,” he said.
Hilary Pearson, 40, was waiting outside the theater for her husband, a new citizen originally from Australia. With her was their 7-year-old son, Archer, excitedly clutching a balloon and sporting a green dinosaur mask.
“We just feel so grateful and very touched to see all the diversity, and the beautiful welcome Chicago gave to this diverse group of people,” Hilary said. “It really speaks to what a really special place America is, to be a land of opportunity for folks from all over the world.”
Agnes Kanjinga, 44, is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her journey wasn’t easy; she fled her home and headed to South Africa to escape violence. In South Africa, she faced hardship and xenophobia. She moved to the U.S. in 2016.
“I feel really, really welcomed in America,” Kanjinga said. The certified nursing assistant received her citizenship Monday alongside her oldest child. Her two other children and two friends came along.
The group’s plans for the rest of the day? “We’re going to have a party,” she said.