ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Getting citizenship can be a long and expensive legal process for many. But in 2002, President Bush signed an executive order that makes it much easier, if the applicant was in the U.S. armed services on or after September 11, 2001. More than 26,000 service members have already taken advantage of it.
NPR's Marisa Penaloza tells us about one of them, who lives in the Boston area.
Jose Rodriguez is from Angola. That African nation erupted into civil war after willing independence from Portugal in the 1970s. Rodriguez came to this country and spent four years on active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps.
MARISA PENALOZA: Jose Rodriguez recited the oath of citizenship on December 12. And when he got to this line, he knew exactly what it meant.
Mr. JOSE RODRIGUEZ: That I will bear arms on behalf of the United States.
PENALOZA: Rodriguez doesn't have to prove he would defend the U.S. He's already done it twice - as a Marine in Iraq.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: The first time I went there was in 2003, for the invasion, and I was in Nazariya, of the 1st Battalion, Second Marines. And the second time I went there was 2004, you know. It's more like peacekeeping. So we had to kind of like all patrols and - so both times were different.
PENALOZA: He says the U.S. had been generous to him and his family. And he felt it was time to give back. Rodriguez lives in Brockton, Massachusetts, with his parents and younger sister. This town was once a blooming manufacturing center. It became famous from making boots for Union troops during the Civil War. But like many industrial towns in New England, the economy here took a down turn.
The morning of Rodriques's citizenship ceremony is chilly. We drive to Lowell, about an hour north.
(Soundbite of music)
PENALOZA: Rodriguez as at the wheel of his sister's black Infiniti SUV. Two high school buddies are in the backseat, coffee and donuts in hand. The three grew up speaking Portuguese in Angola, a country in Southern Africa with a long history of conflict.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking in foreign language)
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)
PENALOZA: Jose Rodriguez came to the U.S. when he was 16. He plays basketball and rides a motorcycle. He says he fit in well with the Marines, but some of his friends there were curious about where he came from.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I told them I was born in Angola. Yeah, a lot of them doing the (unintelligible) you guys from Louisiana - what, that's a prison. Yeah, that's also where I was born in Africa.
PENALOZA: Now, 24, he doesn't like to talk much about what he did in Iraq. He left the Marines in April, and is now in trade school. This January, he'll a get a degree in heating and air conditioning repair. A big crowd outside Lowell Memorial Auditorium waits for the ceremony to begin. Inside, everyone gets checked.
Unidentified Woman #1: I need to see if you have the permanent residency card. Okay, Jose. Has there been any changes since your interview?
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Not really.
Unidentified Woman #1: Okay.
PENALOZA: The auditorium is dressed for the occasion. A huge American flag is the backdrop. Engraved in the wall above, gold letters read liberty to all. Rodriguez seems a bit overwhelmed. His six-foot-two-inch frame looks smaller here. But he stands tall when Judge Mark Wolfe calls the participants' country of origin.
Judge MARK WOLFE (United States District Court): Afghanistan. Albania. Algeria. Angola.
PENALOZA: Soon after, Judge Wolfe declares Rodriguez and the others citizens of the United States.
(Soundbite of applause)
PENALOZA: Back home in Brockton, Rodriguez's mother, Maria, cooks fish with capers Portuguese style. She gave her a boy a big hug when he walks in the door.
Mrs. MARIA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking foreign language)
PENALOZA: The Rodriguezes immigrated from Angola in 1998. The family waited 15 years for a U.S. Visa. She and her husband became citizens earlier this year. She says she's proud of her son, and she keeps his uniform in her bedroom closet.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: That's my dress blues, as the Marines are famous for.
PENALOZA: Rodriguez lightens up and it seems easy for him to talk. He says he's thankful to be home. Some of his friends were killed. And even though he's not officially an America, he says he doesn't feel any different today.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Just because, you know, I've got the paper that says I'm American now. You know, I wanted that. But, you know, I felt American already.
PENALOZA: He chooses his words carefully to explain his feelings. He says becoming an American is a long process. Learning the language, embracing the culture and fighting for his adopted country. It takes time. And he did all that long before reciting the oath.
Marisa Penaloza, NPR News.
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