Becoming a United States citizen was not just a goal for Manuel Monarrez, but for his parents as well.
“They brought us here for a reason. They knew that we were going to have a better life here,” he said. “So it was something that they wanted more than us, really.”
Monarrez, 27, was one of 31 U.S. citizenship candidates to be naturalized at the Roman L. Hruska Federal Courthouse in Omaha on May 14. Now living in Fremont, he and his family are originally from Mexico.
He was 14 when his parents had made the decision to move him and his older sister to the United States.
“At the time I had a sister and two brothers living here, and I have a brother who lives in Texas,” he said. “So that’s the reason why we moved to Fremont.”
Monarrez’s sister petitioned for her parents to receive green cards with the assumption that the children would be eligible as well.
“We ended up staying outside the place where they did the interview, and then my parents came out of there and were like, ‘Well, we got our green cards now, but not you guys,’” Monarrez said. “Because I guess if you petition for your parents, it’s a quicker process than if you petition for your brothers, so that’s why we weren’t part of that.”
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However, Monarrez’s parents were determined to bring their children to the United States, as they had to enter to find jobs as part of their green card requirements.
“We ended up getting permission for two weeks, so we ended up overstaying our visas,” he said. “And then right away, my dad looked for a job, he got a job and started paying for an application for us.”
After the visas, Monarrez and his sister received work permits, which allowed them to work and go to school, but not leave the United States, for two years before getting their own green cards.
“You get a Social Security number, but it says on there that it’s not valid without the work permit,” he said. “So the work permit expires every year, and that’s what we got first.”
Joining the eighth grade at Fremont Middle School, Monarrez said adjusting to life in the United States was difficult.
“I didn’t know a word of English, so I came here and didn’t know anything,” he said. “It was hard, especially where I was at that age where you want to do your own thing. You really don’t want to be with your parents anymore.”
However, the adjustment was made easier with the help of Monarrez’s sister, who was a freshman at Fremont High School at the time.
“I started getting confident with my English and I started learning some words so I could make some friends and start talking to friends,” he said. “But at first, it was pretty much me.”
Although Monarrez graduated with honors and received a full-ride scholarship to Midland University, he declined in order to be able to support his first child.
Monarrez started work at WholeStone Farms, then Hormel Foods, in 2014 as a maintenance mechanic. The company also paid for his schooling, and he eventually graduated from Metropolitan Community College.
From the moment he stepped foot in the country, Monarrez said he knew he wanted to be a citizen, as it provided more privileges such as voting, running for office and holding a federal job.
“My older sister is the one that became a citizen first, so ever since then, I started looking up to that,” he said. “I was like, ‘Well, if she did it, then I can do it,’ and then after that, my other brother did it and then my sister and then I finally did it.”
Monarrez’s citizenship required that he have his green card for five years. After submitting his application, the wait for an interview took around two years, he said.
“So it probably took me almost 10 years with everything: getting the work permits and the green cards and then my citizenship,” Monarrez said. “It’s been a long process.”
At the beginning of the year, Monarrez was tested on his English, with writing, reading and speaking. He also had to correctly answer six out of the 10 civics questions provided to him.
“They give you this big book with 100 questions in it, and then you need to study them and you don’t know which ones they’re going to ask,” Monarrez said. “So I think that’s the nerve-wracking part, you’re like, ‘Which ones are they going to ask me?’”
As he went to school in the United States, Monarrez said he was easily able to pass the interview. At his ceremony, presided over by U.S. District Judge Robert F. Rossiter, he joined candidates from 18 countries and took the Oath of Allegiance.
“You pretty much give up loyalty to your country, that’s what they want you to do there,” Monarrez said. “And they tell you, ‘You’re becoming a citizen. We don’t want you to forget your culture, but we want you to be loyal to the U.S. because that’s what you’re becoming a citizen for.’”
Monarrez said the entire ceremony only took about a half-an-hour due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My sister said that when they did it, they put them all together and made them sing the National Anthem and all kinds of stuff,” he said. “They didn’t do any of that, and they had us all spread out.”
At the ceremony, Monarrez said his parents were crying over his accomplishment, as well as inspired, as he said his father now wants to undergo the process.
“He was like, ‘Even though I’m old, it’s hard for me to memorize all these answers, I want to do it,’” he said. “’I want to try it out and see how it goes.’”
Now a citizen, Monarrez said he’s most looking forward to getting to vote, as he always felt like an outsider when friends asked him who he planned on voting for.
“Even though it’s not like I couldn’t do it because I was here illegally or whatever, I was just like, ‘Well, why can’t I vote?’” he said. “So that’s one of the things that I’m pretty excited about more than anything else.”
Monarrez said he’s also encouraging his wife, Ruby, to become a citizen, as she still has her green card and has only been in the country for two years.
“She’s got two kids, my two stepkids, and if you’ve got kids that are younger than 18 and you become a citizen, they automatically become citizens,” he said. “So it’s worth it for you, and then that way, they don’t have to go through that process when they grow up.”
Although the process of becoming a citizen was long, Monarrez said it was completely worth it.
“I know a lot of people that come here and they want to work here and then they retire and they want to move out of the country and go somewhere else,” he said. “And I keep telling everybody this: I’m not going anywhere. I want to stay here.”