WEST BRANCH — At 7, she sold pencils on the street in Mexico. At 16, she lost a baby because of a lack of health care.
Friday, alongside her 22-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Bernal became a U.S. citizen.
Bernal and Blanca Apolonio Brownmiller were among 74 people who took the oath of allegiance as part of the 11th annual naturalization ceremony at the Herbert Hoover Library and Museum in West Branch.
From 30 countries in North and South America, Asia, Europe and Africa, they stood, many holding small American flags, and answered “I will” when a federal judge asked if they would support and defend the Constitution and bear arms on behalf of the country if necessary.
“I now pronounce you United States citizens,” Judge C.J. Williams told the new citizens ranging in age from a 19-year-old Canadian to a 66-year-old from Liberia.
As often as he presides at such ceremonies, Williams said, they still make him emotional.
It made Fatima Khaliefa of Iowa City emotional, too, as she read her certificate of citizenship afterward. A student at the University of Iowa “and a full-time mom” of three, she was “very excited, very happy” to become a citizen after leaving Sudan “for a better life for my children” nearly six years go.
“A better life” and “opportunity” were the key words as new citizens explained why they came to the United States.
“I feel very accomplished. I can contribute to the United States,” Dung Ngyuen, formerly of Vietnam, said with his Marine Reserve son, Duy — a citizen since 2013 — interpreting.
For Bernal, it was escaping poverty and a bleak future that took her first to California and then Iowa City, where she works in food service at the public schools and at the Domestic Violence Intervention Program.
Becoming a citizen fulfilled her dream, Bernal said, adding that taking the citizenship oath with her daughter, a UI student and member of the Iowa Army National Guard, made the day extra special.
“I want to be sure they get the education I didn’t have” so they have opportunities she did not, Bernal said as family and friends congratulated her.
“It’s a milestone,” Brownmiller added. “I can finally vote.”
Mother and daughter acknowledged the help they had along the way, including moving the six-member family from a two-room mobile home to a Habitat for Humanity house.
“I built my own house, and it’s still standing,” Brownmiller said.