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'I love this land:' 66 become citizens in Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: July 5, 2013 at 06:18 AM

TAMPA - Applause rose and fell as the names of 66 new Americans were read aloud Thursday during a naturalization ceremony inside the Tampa Bay History Center. With careful enunciation, Leslie Meeker of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Tampa covered 27 countries, from the Bahamas to Vietnam.

The one constant through the roll call: Olga Patricia Forero, of Bogota, Colombia.

Forero was the only person to clap every single time, for every name and every country announced. For 25 minutes.

Dressed in a patriotic ensemble of a blue dress, red shoes and a red blazer with a sparkly U.S. flag on the right lapel, she proudly showed her excitement.

The petite 48-year-old waved her hand slowly in the air while singing along with a recording of "God Bless the U.S.A." She winked with a broad smile at her 8-year-old daughter, Danielle, while swearing an oath of allegiance to the country. She closed her eyes and nodded in agreement as Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn urged the group to "go make us better than what we were before you raised your hands." She struck a proud pose after shaking the mayor's hand and accepting her citizenship certificate.

Her ceremony was among 100 events to be held by the USCIS on U.S. soil during the first five days of July. More than 7,800 people will become naturalized citizens during those events. For the first time, the agency encouraged new citizens to share photos of their experience on Twitter, using the hashtag #July4Natz.

Through May of this year, 503,104 immigrants became naturalized. That compares with 763,681 in 2012.

Immigration reform being considered by Congress could radically inflate those numbers in coming years and change the requirements for citizenship. In late June, the Senate passed a bill that, if approved, would allow millions of illegal immigrants the chance to live legally in the United States and eventually become U.S. citizens. The 1,200-page, $50 billion bill now heads to the House of Representatives

For Forero, becoming a U.S. citizen on Thursday was the culmination of a 10-year process.

In 2001, she fled to the United States from Bogota after being targeted by FARC revolutionary guerillas. In Colombia, she came under fire as the only female psychiatrist working at a medical company. For almost 50 years, guerillas have targeted the government and the country's elite.

Two years after emigrating to Miami, she applied for naturalization, She later moved to Tampa and gave birth to her daughter in 2005 at Tampa General Hospital.

Sara Gagan, a volunteer who tutored Forero in English for her naturalization requirement, said the two became friends as Forero rebuilt her life in the United States, including becoming a certified nursing assistant. The two became so close, Forero's Danielle thinks of Gagan's husband, Richard, as her grandfather, and the Gagans attended the naturalization ceremony Thursday.

"I want my American dreams," Forero said with her certificate in one hand and a small U.S.flag in the other. "I want it for my daughter and my granddaughters. I love this land."

jhouck@tampatrib.com

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