NC Fourth of July Festival
July 3, 4 p.m. • Free
Fort Johnston Garrison Lawn
Southport • www.nc4thofjuly.com
As July fourth approaches, Americans prepare to celebrate their independence and patriotism by way of fireworks, red, white and blue flag cakes, and tons of hamburgers and hot dogs. However, countless Americans-to-be will celebrate their first Independence Day as official U.S. citizens and rejoice in what the day is all about.
On July 3rd the award-winning Naturalization Ceremony of Southport continues during the town’s annual NC 4th of July Festival. The festival has celebrated and welcomed new citizens since 1996, and for the past six years, co-chairs of the naturalization committee, Fran and Ted Carlsen, have witnessed hundreds of people finally reach citizenship.
One of the most memorable stories, Ted recalls, was that of a man from Virginia Beach who was born to a U.S. Army solider and an Italian mother shortly after WWII in Italy. “Although a natural-born American, his birth was never properly recorded at the U.S. Embassy in Italy, probably as a result of the post-war and occupation turmoil,” Carlsen estimates. “The family returned to the United States, and [he] lived the rest of his life thinking he was a U.S. citizen. The error was not discovered until [he] applied for his Social Security, and it was then determined that his status was one of an illegal alien. For the next two years, with the help of his congressman and a local TV station, he was administered the oath of citizenship and received his certificate on July 3, 2009 on the Garrison House lawn in Southport.”
This is only one of many long and hard roads countless people take to reach citizenship in the U.S. The general process varies depending on the applicant, Carlsen explains. “It is dependent on how long you have been a resident alien, and there are expedited procedures for members of the U.S. Armed Services who are not citizens.”
Last year, after spending most of her life in the United States as an alien, Caroline Courter was finally naturalized at the ceremony. Originally from Blackpool, England, Courter fondly recalls what she thought of moving to America when she was 8 years old.
“I really and truly thought we were moving to Florida to go to Disney World every day,” she notes. The reality of her family’s motivations for moving, however, was a little more traditional: opportunity for a better life. Though they followed the rules of the road toward naturalization over the years through family sponsorship, the limitations and restrictions of that policy neglected to allow Courter to become a citizen. A family member can sponsor only one other immediate member, specifically a parent or child. Though Courter was not sponsored, she managed to stay in the country.
She moved to NC while she was still in high school and went to college to continue her education. Soon after she found love, and two years into the process of officially becoming a citizen—she even lost her English accent over time—her marriage ended, and she had to start the whole process over again.
Naturally, citizenship candidates must learn about the United States as a part of the naturalization process. They have to pass a test in U.S. history and government. As she studied and studied for the naturalization test, she posted many of the questions on her Facebook page for her American-born friends. Courter recalls “more than one wouldn’t know the answer.” (Questions can be found at www.nc4thofjuly.com if readers would like to see how they fare.) Understandably, individuals like Courter take great pride and pleasure in their knowledge and hard work.
Because Courter desired to earn her citizenship and the right to vote on her own, she put off marrying her now husband for almost five years. On the day of the ceremony last year, Courter invited not only family and friends but neighbors. Many said they felt more American by standing in support of her.
“When we finally got to that day, it was very emotional,” she remembers. “That chapter was coming to an end. It was definitely a day of triumph.”
After what may be a decade or more in the making for some, the candidates taking oath this year will hear Wilmington’s mayor, Bill Saffo, speak. Mayor Saffo knows from personal experience what this event means to new citizens. Son of a migrant from Ikaria, Greece, Mayor Saffo’s mother arrived in America when she was 11 years old. Family history inspired his participation in local government.
“As a son of immigrant parents and grand-parents, who came to this country for a better way of life, they instilled in us that the opportunities this great country offers should be repaid by public service to our fellow citizens.” he says.
Participating in the Naturalization Ceremony over Independence Day weekend means a great deal to the mayor personally. “Although born in this country, I have experienced this journey that many of our newest citizens will experience in the years to come,” he continues, “and that it is my hope: They will bring their cultures and their experiences from their native lands and weave them into this rich fabric that we call America.”
Along with speaker Mayor Saffo, guests attending the Naturalization Ceremony can expect patriotic music from the Brunswick Concert Band, cannon firings and a grand finale ending true to a 4th of July celebration, with the fireboat in the harbor spraying red, white and blue water.
The Naturalization Ceremony, held at the Fort Johnston Garrison Lawn on Sunday, July 3, at 4 p.m., is a partnership between the NC 4th of July Festival and U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The weekend festival starts on Friday, July 1, but events leading up to the weekend have already begun, including arts and crafts shows, bands, a parade televised on WECT, Beach Day, a Freedom Run and Walk, with of course fireworks and much more. Most events are free, and readers can log onto www.nc4thofjuly.com for the full schedule.