Promised Land 

Amid anti-immigrant rhetoric, Utah continues welcoming immigrants to Zion.

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In this presidential election year, with pledges from Republican hopeful Donald Trump to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and forbid members of an entire world religion from entering America, it would be natural to conclude that this nation of immigrants has forgotten where its people came from.

One might also deduce that Trump's platforms—and the way they are resounding with so many millions of Americans—could give rise to fears that the country is in decline and that America and its promises of equality, hope and freedom, aren't as sparkling as they used to be, or at the very least, these principles just aren't for everyone.

But to the 150 people from 51 countries that took part in a naturalization ceremony at the State Capitol on Monday, March 28, America glistens with the same amount of promise as it has for generations.

The immigrants, many dressed in their Sunday best, waived small American flags and cheered to speeches from civic leaders. And after pledging their oath of allegiance, vowing to defend the Constitution and to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law, the new Americans and their families posed with their crisp citizenship certificates in one hand, the stars and stripes in the other.

"I came here to look for more opportunity and stay with my family," said Claudia Amaya, who emigrated from Peru six years ago and is now in her final year of business school at Utah Valley University. "This is a dream for me, now."

For Yadu Khatiwada, the road to becoming a U.S. citizen stretched for decades and multiple countries. In the early 1990s, Khatiwada and his parents fled their home in Bhutan to seek refuge in Nepal, where they were refugees for 18 years. Seven years ago, with help from the International Organization for Migrants, Khatiwada, his parents and his wife and child, ended up in Utah.

Far from feeling as though America is in a rut when it comes to opportunity for immigrants, Khatiwada said he is excited to be able to participate in the democratic process. "I feel proud," he said.

The United States welcomed 729,995 new citizens in fiscal year 2015. Nearly 4,900 of those were living in Utah—a 12 percent increase over the prior fiscal year, when 4,372 immigrants living in Utah obtained their citizenship. During the first fiscal quarter of 2016, 858 citizenship applications were granted in the Beehive State.

Leonor Perretta, a Salt Lake City immigration attorney, says this volume of new Americans doesn't surprise her. "Our business has been on the increase since I started 20 years ago," Perretta says.

She says picking one specific occurrence and linking it to an increase or decrease in interest from those who might be seeking citizenship is difficult to do. But she says that whenever people are scared, she sees more foot traffic in her office.

For instance, when politicians make anti-immigrant statements, or when officers from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department conduct raids, people ask Perretta to help them weigh their options.

"People are afraid because of all the rhetoric and the bad publicity that Trump is giving them—the negativity and hostility," Perretta says. "Whenever people are more afraid, they're more likely to come in and ask questions."

She says that America's anti-immigrant fervor has come in waves over the years. The worst bout, she says, came in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Even when some Americans are vocal in their opposition to undocumented immigration, though, Perretta says the United States still holds more promise for most people than the alternatives.

"It's still a better option to come here than just about anywhere else," she says.

The young and old alike became citizens during Monday's ceremony. Elvira Giles, 89, was helped from a wheelchair by her children and grandchildren for a post-oath photograph. And 19-year-old Guadalupe Bustos, who has lived in the United States for the past 10 years and in Utah for five, says she believes that having U.S. citizenship will help her get a foothold in applying to colleges.

Bustos, who works in the milk department at Gossner Foods, in the Cache Valley, says that she decided to apply for U.S. citizenship when she realized her work visa would be expiring. "If you study real hard, then you will be able to pass," Bustos says of the English and civics test. "So that's what I did. I couldn't believe it myself, but I did it."

Sachin Rajhans arrived in the United States as a 27-year-old student in 1997. He became a forensic psychiatrist, and in 2003, went to work for the Utah State Hospital. On Monday, Rajhans and his wife, Kirti, both became U.S. citizens.

After living in the United States for 20 years, Rajhans says he's looking forward to finally being able to add his voice to the nation's election system and vote for the first time.

"Compared to India, this is a more rigorous democracy," Rajhans says. "People have a stronger voice in the election process, and they are very much proactive. They are very strongly pro-democratic."

Rajhans says his first days and months in America were difficult. He was living in New York City, spoke with a thick Indian accent and struggled to understand the American accent. In order to better understand local language and culture, Rajhans says he bought a cable-television package and watched sitcoms like Friends.

The decision to seek American citizenship, Rajhans says, has been gradual. His daughter's birth contributed, but he struggles to pinpoint the moment when he decided he wanted to become an American. All Rajhans knows, he says, is that the outcome will be good.

The topic of America, and whether it's in decline or on the upswing, is one that Rajhans says he's debated with friends. He argues the latter: That America has been great, is great and will continue to be a great place to live long into the future.

"Overall, it's just an instinct that's pushing me toward becoming an American," Rajhans says. "I think that it is a great thing. I think going forward that it will be great to be a citizen of America."

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