For the last 15 years, a "green card" allowed Dr. Khaver Kirmani to help improve the health and well-being of hundreds of babies born prematurely in America.
On Friday, Kirmani was among 104 people representing 35 countries who waved American flags as they upgraded their citizenship status from green card, or permanent resident, to U.S. citizen during one of two oath of allegiance ceremonies at the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse in downtown Phoenix.
Many described it as a happy and important day as they spoke to the crowd before being granted their citizenship status by Judge Roger Strand. Many who took the oath said they believed in "doing the right thing" to become U.S. citizens and that they support Arizona's new immigration law that requires police officers to arrest those they believe are in the U.S. illegally.
Others said they paid the $595 naturalization application fee for citizenship papers to avoid any future problems while traveling throughout the U.S., a process now averaging five to nine months after possessing a green card for three to five years.
Overall, about 200 people are naturalized, achieving citizenship status during two ceremonies each Friday at the federal courthouse.
Kirmani, 39, of Gilbert, who immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan in 1995 for job and education opportunities, became a naturalized citizen. He began his medical training in upstate New York and now mostly works at Banner Cardon's Children's Medical Center in Mesa. After initially having a work visa, Kirmani received a green card in 2005 and applied for his citizenship about nine months ago.
"This is probably one of the most important days in my life," Kirmani said. "It's been such a long time, but I'm really happy. This just shows if you work hard, you get credit here. I think people need to be here legally. One bad thing done by an immigrant reflects on all of us."
Others becoming naturalized citizens included veteran Major League baseball pitcher Valerio De Losantos, 34, of Scottsdale, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic soon after scouts for the Milwaukee Brewers discovered him at age 17; Arizona Army National Guard Spc. E-4 Susanti Ortiz from Indonesia; and Ewa Kogut from Poland who lives with her husband, Sylvester, in Gilbert.
"I appreciate the opportunities this country gives to me, and I would like to give back to the community," said De Losantos, who currently is a free agent and plans to get signed by a team after the All-Star break. "Now, I feel I can work anywhere without any immigration problems."
Retired Iranian judge Kazem Madjiei, 81, of Scottsdale, who once served under Shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in Tehran for 32 years, and Madjiei's wife, Mali, also became naturalized citizens during the ceremony.
Kazem Madjiei's son-in-law, Mosan Nassirian, who was pushing him in a wheelchair, said the family does not like the new immigration law, but the elderly couple who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years, felt it was necessary to receive citizenship papers to avoid any problems.
"It's discrimination," Nassirian said of Senate Bill 1070.
However, the Madjieises said they were happy and relieved to become naturalized citizens.
"I feel it is very important for me," Kazem Madjiei said.
Ewa and Sylvester Kogut, who gave birth to a daughter on Monday, said it was quicker for Ewa to be granted citizenship status since Sylvester already was a U.S. citizen.
"It's nice to see so many people do this legally," Sylvester Kogut said. "The law should have been in place sooner. It would've prevented a lot of the problems we have now and been less work for the government."
From last October through March, 316,000 people filed applications for citizenship status through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington, D.C.
There has not been an increase in applications for U.S. citizenship since Senate Bill 1070 was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer on April 23, according to Marie Sebrecht, a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman. Last year, for the entire fiscal year from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, 2009, 741,900 people filed applications to become citizens, and over 1 million people filed applications in 2008, Sebrecht said.
Julia Gowan, an officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who was overseeing Friday's ceremony in Phoenix, told the new U.S. citizens, "Make yourself be heard. Make a difference."
"To make our democracy strong," she said, "we must have active participation by all of its citizens."