March 1, 2008


‘It’s the greatest feeling’

40 new citizens sworn in at ceremony in Cortland County Courthouse


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer   
With her family at her side, Maria Devitt of Ithaca, who was born in Spain, smiles to herself after taking an oath of citizenship to become a U.S. citizen Friday at the Cortland County Courthouse. Forty people from 25 countries became citizens at the ceremony.

Staff Reporter

The 40 people who raised their right hands Friday and swore an oath to God in Cortland County Supreme Court had long been Americans in nearly every way, except for on paper.
With her family gathered around her in the rotunda of the Cortland County Courthouse at noon after the hour-long Naturalization Ceremony, Maria Devitt of Ithaca — originally from Spain — had lived and raised her family here for 28 years.
“I have no idea what took me so long,” Devitt said. “It’s the greatest feeling.”
The new Americans hailed from 25 countries. The crowd in Supreme Court Judge Phillip Rumsey’s courtroom was all smiles, some older and some younger but all happy to be sitting right where they were. At least 80 people, including the new citizens, sat in the main gallery and a Cortland High School law class sat in the balcony above.
The CHS Chamber Orchestra played a medley of American folk songs and “God Bless America” before the ceremony began. The Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem kicked off the swell of pride in country that was reinforced when the new Americans took their oath of allegiance.
Led by Lt. Colonel Bruce Fein, a judge advocate for the state Army National Guard, they recited “The American’s Creed,” by William Tyler Page, an essay written in 1917 that was the winner of a nationwide essay contest.
Cortland County Legislature Chairman John Daniels gave the opening remarks, thinking back _80 years to his own grandfather’s emigration from Italy, the grandfather who taught his family “to _be very proud to be an American and to serve our country and our community.”
Jeffrey Belling, an officer with the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Citizenship & Immigration Services, presented the petitions for citizenship that Rumsey approved, thereby allowing County Clerk Betsy Larkin to administer the oath of allegiance.
“The oath here you’re about to take is the exact same wording of those taken by new citizens in 1808,” Larkin said.
“I hereby declare, on oath or affirmation that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince or potentate, state or sovereignty of whom which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;” the oath begins, before leading on to a pledge to defend and support the United States “against all enemies, foreign and _domestic.”
Larkin said that in the three consecutive years she has administered the oath, she has never heard any hesitation in the section where the new citizens pledge to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law,” or when they promise the oath was made freely, “so help me God.”
Gus Wehbe, an American citizen since 1996 who is originally from Lebanon, urged his fellow immigrants to follow his path and get involved. Wehbe is a member of the Truxton Town Board.
“I am proud that a regular guy, and an immigrant, at that, can get involved in local government and work to make a difference,” Wehbe said.
He said this is an important time to gain the right to vote since the presidential election looms this year.
“The second most important piece of paper you will receive today, second only to your citizenship certificate, is your voter registration card,” Wehbe said, holding a card up.
The most visible American symbol is the flag, and Wehbe asked how many stars were contained in its blue field. After Diego Sebastian Saenz, originally from Spain, answered the question quickest and loudest, Wehbe awarded him a flag flown over the Capitol Building in Washington. The flag was provided by Congressman Mike Arcuri (R-Utica).
Rita Wright of Cortland took her oath in October in Syracuse and has been living in America for 28 years. She spoke after Wehbe, telling the new Americans that their “hopes and dreams are now realities.”
The new citizens received their certificates in a long procession, happy in the pictures being taken by their family and friends.
Kang Ku and his wife, Elaine Chiu, both of Ithaca but originally from Taiwan, had their hands full dealing with their two children — already Americans — while also taking oaths and snapping pictures.
Ku came to this country more than 15 years ago to attend school, and afterward found a job and moved to Ithaca. Although he knew it would be special, he said reading the American’s Creed and taking the oath hit him in a way he had not expected when he walked into the courtroom.
“I was like, ‘wow,’” Ku said after the ceremony.
He’s eager to vote, especially given the excitement of the impending presidential race.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Ku said.
Devitt said she too had a “wow” moment as she realized she “felt like an American now.”
“I had goose bumps when we were in the ceremony,” Devitt said, smiling and wondering what took her so long.