By DIANNE SOLIS
Published: 17 May 2012 10:59 PM
A citizenship ceremony in the federal courthouse in Dallas on Thursday paid special homage to the “most vulnerable” newcomers to the United States — those granted asylum from persecution back in their native lands.
Among them was Roseline Ngaaje, a teacher and women’s advocate in her native Cameroon. She was granted asylum through the work of the Human Rights Initiative, a Dallas nonprofit whose staff filled the jury box as a crowd of families sat ready for an unusual courtroom ceremony.
Ngaaje, who is now a 52-year-old school administrator, took center stage, greeted federal Magistrate Judge Jeff Kaplan, then told the crowd holding miniature U.S. flags, “Congratulations to all of us.”
They gave her a standing ovation just for those five words — because she was one of them.
She praised “my almighty God” and highlighted the university degrees of her two daughters who also came to Dallas from Cameroon.
“My passion is education,” she told the group. “Without help, and without America, we would not have succeeded.”
Then, Ngaaje joked with the immigrant group about security procedures at airports and fast lines for U.S. citizens and slow lines for everybody else.
“All of us today are going to be in the shuttle line,” she said. The laughter rolled through the 81 citizenship candidates.
Then the call started for citizenship certificates for men and women whose home countries ranged from Argentina to Vietnam.
Citizenship applications are up 18 percent in the first three months of this year from the first quarter of last year. In this presidential election year, many campaigns are in full swing to encourage naturalization among the 8.1 million immigrants in the U.S. who are eligible because of how long they have spent in the U.S.
Kaplan said it was the first naturalization ceremony in his courtroom in which a freshly minted U.S. citizen spoke — and he said it should happen more often.
His own grandparents came from Poland, he told the crowd, even dropping a few details about their romance.
Asylum seekers are the “most vulnerable” of immigrants, the judge said.
Ngaaje didn’t offer details about her personal story in Cameroon, a West African country of 19 million that has been governed by the same president for nearly three decades.
“I belonged to a women’s organization,” she said.
“Selfless” is how staff at the Human Rights Initiative described her.
It was clear she took a rough route to U.S. citizenship. It isn’t easy to win asylum, which requires proving a credible fear of being persecuted based on political opinion, race, religion, nationality or social group membership. Torture and imprisonment have often come to define persecution.
‘Fleeing for their lives’
Immigration courts granted only about a quarter of the 40,000 asylum requests in the last fiscal year, according to the Department of Justice.
“Almost all the applications we file we ask for asylum and the United Nations Convention Against Torture,” said Bill Holston, executive director of the Human Rights Initiative.
In general, Holston said, asylum applicants “are people literally fleeing for their lives, and they are the very best people we could hope for as U.S. citizens. That is why it is important for our country to give asylum.”
This week, the Human Rights Initiative won the State Bar of Texas’ award for its pro bono work. The nonprofit offers free legal help to asylum applicants and women and children who are victims of violence, abuse and neglect.
“We do $2 million of legal services a year because we have relationships with the best law firms,” Holston said of the private attorneys who volunteer with the nonprofit.
Betsy Healy, co-founder of the Human Rights Initiative, gave Ngaaje a bouquet of roses. Ngaaje was one of Healy’s first clients more than a decade ago.
“These are people who are desperate to contribute, and asylum gives them a way,” Healy said.
Ngaaje rushed back to work after the 11 a.m. ceremony. She said she would spend the weekend celebrating.
“I feel free. Every American is free, as the Constitution says,” she said. “I feel very secure with all the advantages that come with American citizenship.”