KNAPPTON COVE — When Knappton Cove Heritage Center Director Nancy Anderson organized a naturalization ceremony for some of America’s newest citizens, she pulled out all the stops, even going so far as to invite President Obama.
“I start at the top,” she said with a smile. “He is our employee, you know?”
Obama couldn’t make it, but that didn’t seem to dampen the mood during the Friday Sept. 16 ceremony. The red, white and blue waved under sunny skies, as immigration officials granted full citizenship to eleven immigrants from Mexico, Thailand, El Salvador, Korea, Iran, and South Africa, in the company of their family and friends.
The nonprofit Heritage Center was once known as the Columbia River Quarantine Station. Between 1899 and 1938, thousands of new Americans passed through the Station before continuing on to their final destinations. It played such a prominent role in their journey to citizenship that in 1921, the Oregonian called the station “The Ellis Island of the Columbia.”
Historically, incoming vessels carrying immigrants moored in the Columbia River, where they were inspected. If cleared, the ships headed on to Portland or Astoria. However, when officials suspected a ship of carrying disease, they would order it to proceed to the quarantine station instead. Disembarking immigrants passed through the lazaretto, or “pest house”, and sometimes spent weeks there, recuperating from illness and waiting to be cleared. In all, Anderson said, 132 ships and about 6000 people from all over the world passed through Knappton Cove.
Anderson’s parents purchased the property in 1950. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1960, and Anderson is working to secure its future as part of the National Parks system.
Naturalization ceremonies for new citizens are often hosted at courthouses or immigrations offices, Anderson said, but significant historic sites are sometimes used for a special touch. Given the property’s historic role in immigration to the Northwest, Anderson thought it might be appropriate to host a citizenship ceremony there — especially if it could fall on (or near) U.S. Citizenship Day, on Sept. 17. That’s the date the U.S. Constitution was signed into law in 1787.
After coming up with the idea, Anderson had to seek approval from the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Service (USCIS). The agency agreed that it was a fitting place to welcome the new citizens, who all currently reside in Washington or Oregon.
After Astoria Regatta Queen Aubrey McMahan sang a beautiful rendition of the national anthem, Anderson welcomed the new citizens and their families to the ceremony.
“This is the first place where thousands first set foot on American soil,” she said. The roughly hourlong ceremony also featured speakers from the U.S. Public Health Service, National Parks Service, and the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Service. The American Legion Post 12 Color Guard from Astoria provided flags and ambiance.
Quinn Andrus is a community relations officer with USCIS, which oversees the immigration and naturalization of all new U.S. citizens. Her office in Portland hosts naturalization ceremonies two or three times a week, she said, but some ceremonies strike a more festive tone. One recent event was hosted on a Coast Guard cutter, another took place on Cinco de Mayo. Other naturalization ceremonies have been hosted at Fort Vancouver.
When the ceremonies have a more upbeat atmosphere or unique setting, it enhances the experience for the guests of honor.
“Usually, they’re really excited,” Andrus said. “It kind of makes it a little more special.”
In general, immigrants have to live in the U.S. on a “Green Card” for about five years, and meet several other requirements before they can go through naturalization, the process of achieving citizenship. From application to oath, naturalization usually takes from five months to a year. Applicants must demonstrate good moral character, be proficient in English, and pass a test on U.S. history and civics.
“It’s not a slam dunk, but they all did it, so it’s very deeply meaningful for them,” Andrus said. “So we try to make it special because of that.” Historically, Andrus said, immigrants did not ever receive citizenship at the Quarantine Station. In fact, some who ended up in the “pest house” were sent back.
“They could get clotheslined here while they recovered from yellow fever and while their ship was being fumigated,” Andrus said.
Several speakers offered insight and encouragement to the new citizens. Debbie Kaspar, a local ranger with the National Parks Service, encouraged those in attendance to share their pride in citizenship with others. She offered her congratulations and said, “The future of this country is in your hands.” Shelly Langlais, a USCIS field officer, reminded the new citizens of their duties under the U.S. Constitution.
“We share the collective goal of making our country a more perfect union,” she said. “Immigrants strengthen the fabric of our nation with their contributions.” Jay Paulsen, a retired captain with the U.S. Public Health Service, gave his speech wearing a replica of a 1914 USPHS uniform. Acting USPHS Captain Dr. Louis Glass noted that his own family was made up of immigrants from several different lands.
“We’re very fortunate to have you, and we’re very lucky to have you,” Glass said.
The new citizens may have hailed from a half dozen very different countries, but the goal of U.S. citizenship united them. Maria Melgar, 18, came to the U.S. as a child from El Salvador where she fled violence and poverty. She finally received her citizenship at the ceremony.
“It’s my American dream that I’ve always had,” Melgar said. “I’m not going to be sent home from where I’m from. There’s a better future for me here.” Melgar now calls Scappose, Oregon home.
Homa Kazemi, originally of Iran, started the ceremony with a serious expression etched on her face. By the end, it had given way to an indelible smile. How did she feel now?
“Very happy. So happy,” she said, as she posed for a picture with her son Fabod, 7, and her husband, Farhad, who became a U.S. citizen July 5.
Liz Vigil came to the ceremony from Longview. She is originally from Mexico. She attended with her young son.
“I’ve lived here all my life, so it already feels like home,” she said. Now, she added, citizenship makes it real, her place here, secure.
“Now I’ll be able to vote. I’ll be able to make a difference,” she said.
As the ceremony came to a close, Anderson reflected on what had transpired. It was in some ways a dream come true for both her and the new Americans.
“I’m feeling very honored. This has just been a pinnacle,” Anderson said. “It’s really touching. These people are making sacrifices. This is not an easy choice.”
And even though the president couldn’t make it, Anderson and immigration officials provided his pre-recorded comments by tape following the Oath of Allegiance.
“No dream is impossible,” Obama said.