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Former President George W. Bush leads naturalization ceremony live on TODAY

"It means everything, it means freedom," one candidate said of becoming a U.S. citizen.
/ Source: TODAY

Thirty immigrants from 17 countries became U.S. citizens live on TODAY Tuesday morning after they participated in a naturalization ceremony in New York City's Rockefeller Plaza.

To perform the naturalization — when U.S. citizenship is granted to a lawful permanent resident who's met the requirements of the Immigration and Nationality Act — two representatives from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), New York director Timothy Houghton and acting director Tracy Renaud, joined TODAY.

The event was also attended by former first lady Laura Bush and former President George W. Bush, whose new book, "Out of Many, One," calls attention to the range of U.S. immigration stories with his paintings of 43 men and women who've immigrated to the U.S.

On TODAY, a few U.S. citizenship candidates shared what naturalization means to them ahead of the ceremony on the plaza.

"Becoming a United States citizen means that I get to see that I am a part of the system and that my family gets to be a part of its endless opportunities," said Dr. Cherish Smith, a psychiatrist originally from Trinidad and Tobago.

Added registered nurse Marlu Famorca: "I have three children, and they all went to college and now are successful young adults. They came to me one day and said, 'Mommy, it's about time to become a United States citizen, just like us,' and so here I am!"

The ceremony began with Houghton leading the call of countries, where he listed the origin countries of the candidates, all of whom are essential workers or family members of essential workers, and each stood up as his or her own country was called. Those in attendance had come from around the globe, from Australia to the Dominican Republic, Ghana to India, the Philippines to Jamaica and more.

Then Renaud administered the oath of allegiance, which was first said in the late 1700s and has only gone through a few changes since then. Afterward, Bush delivered congratulatory remarks before the group said the Pledge of Allegiance together.

"You and I share the same rights and the same title," he said. "In one of my inauguration speeches ... I said it's important for us to be citizens, not spectators. ... The amazing thing about this ceremony is that most of you were already citizens before you became a citizen on the front line of helping America deal with a severe pandemic. It really speaks to your soul and your spirit, and it reminds me of how fortunate we are to have you as citizens."

"We all come from different backgrounds, and it's important for you to honor the traditions from which you've come, but it's also important to recognize the beauty of America is that out of many backgrounds comes one nation under God," he added. "And so today, you're a citizen, and we're sure proud of you."

Smith reflected on the experience to TODAY's Carson Daly shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen.

"It's so amazing, it's so exciting," she said. "It means everything, it means freedom."

Per Rosenkvist, a nurse practitioner originally from Denmark who's been in the U.S. almost 20 years, said that "it's been a long journey" to citizenship. "It's been hard, but it's been worth today."

"No, it doesn't feel real yet," he added. "But it's also a proud moment."

During Bush's visit to TODAY, he explained why he so often chooses to paint immigrants, saying, "I've got great empathy with immigrants. We were all raised ... by a woman who came up from Mexico with nothing. ... She was nearly as tough on us as Mother, pretty damn tough. She was great. She taught us about family values."

His book's 43 immigrant stories are diverse, from the founder of Greek yogurt company Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, who moved to the U.S. after growing up in eastern Turkey as a Kurdish nomad, to Jeanne Celestine Lakin, who saw her family killed in the Rwandan genocide and now teaches orphans around the world.

"Here's what I hope Americans take away from the discussions and (these) stories," Bush said on TODAY. "We're all God's children, and every life is precious. And if you start with that, with love in your heart as opposed to anger in your heart, or suspicion in your heart, then all of a sudden these problems are more easy to solve."