Welcome to America. Play ball.

New U.S. citizens line up at Principal Park on July 4, 2023.

Writer: Michael Morain
Photographer: Janae Gray

Take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd … which gets a little more diverse around the Fourth of July.

For the past 15 years, usually around Independence Day, immigrants from all over the world have filed onto the infield at Principal Park to take the official oath to become U.S. citizens. Their names flash across the jumbotron. They wave tiny flags and listen to the national anthem. They shake the judge’s hand and Cubbie Bear’s paw.

Last summer, Judge Stephen Locher from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa presided over the ceremony for 32 new citizens from 21 countries. A total of 450 citizens have taken the oath since the gameday tradition started in 2009.

The judge told the new Americans about Sergey Brin from Russia, who came to the United States and co-founded Google, and Foluke Atinuke Gunderson from Canada, who helped the U.S. women’s volleyball team win gold, silver and bronze medals at the Olympics. Locher also mentioned Ronaldo Freitas from Brazil, “an ordinary person with an ordinary job,” who spotted a car accident a few years ago in Massachusetts. He rescued a woman from her car shortly before it burst into flames.

“You don’t have to be a billionaire or an Olympic athlete to make an important contribution to your country,” the judge said, his voice ringing out over the ballpark speakers.

The crowd roared for Maw Naing Oo, a new citizen from Thailand, who threw out the opening pitch. He was nervous, he said afterward, because he hadn’t had much time to practice. He’d flown in overnight from Norway, where he’d been serving with the Marine Corps Reserve.

Salvator Kagoma from Burundi hadn’t had a restful night, either. His daughter said he was so excited he was sleep-dancing.

Kseniya Kazachynska from Ukraine was emotional, too, but in a different way. “I can feel the spirit of the past,” she said. “Now the Fourth of July will never be the same.”

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