Dressed in his navy blue uniform with a perfectly aligned tie and shiny black shoes, just days before the birthdate of America’s independence, Terrico Cadogan pledged his honor to the United States in hopes of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
On July 2 he became the first person in his family to take the Oath of Allegiance and receive U.S. citizenship, a process that was expedited because he has served as an Airman First Class in the Air Force Reserves.
About 7,800 candidates will become citizens at more than 100 ceremonies around the country and world by Friday of this holiday week, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Shortly after his 11th birthday, Cadogan left Barbados and came to the United States with his father and younger sister on his mother’s visa.
“Words can’t explain…I can’t believe I have been here for 10 years,” Cadogan said after the naturalization ceremony earlier this week. “Part of me does wish my family was here with me. I’m proud that I am one of my family members to take the Oath.”
Last year more than 763,000 immigrants were naturalized nationwide; around 8,600 of those individuals served in the military, Michael Borgen, deputy district director for the N.Y. District of USCIS, told msnbc.
One of the main reasons Cadogan’s mother came to America was to help give him the opportunity to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. She accepted a teaching job in Queens, and in 2003 he started middle school in Brooklyn, where he lived with his family.
His mother encouraged him to join the JROTC during his first year at Aviation High School in Long Island City, N.Y., where he learned aviation mechanics. His participation in the program later allowed him to gain a First Class ranking in the Reserves.
He attended Farmingdale State College in New York with a major in aeronautical science, and simultaneously participated in training for the Air Force Reserves. After completing one year of classes, he left school in 2012 to dedicate his time to training.
Last year while at basic training in Texas, Cadogan discovered that his naturalization application could be expedited since he served in the Reserves.
Immigrants can apply for naturalization during training and receive the status upon graduating. Cadogan began the application process when he completed training in March.
“I didn’t sign up with the intent of becoming a citizen,” Cadogan said. “[But] I wouldn’t be able to become a pilot in the Air Force if I wasn’t a citizen.”
Legal permanent residents who are at least 18 and have lived in the United States for five years (three years for spouses of U.S. citizens), can apply to become citizens. They must complete an application and interview with an Immigration Services officer, take a verbal civic test, and pass a finger-printing appointment before being cleared. Then they hand in their green cards and ultimately attend a naturalization ceremony, said Ramon Melocarela, an Immigration Services officer in New York.
USCIS processes applications for immigrants serving in the military without a fee. The time to process a non-military application for a green-card holder can take about five months.
“Our goal is to make sure they are citizens before they leave basic training,” Borgen said. “We still have many who are serving now as permanent residents and who will apply.”
Naturalization for immigrants who serve in the military grants them status as citizens and makes them loyal to the country, and also reduces legal problems for the government and immigrants, said Margaret Stock, an attorney with Cascadia Cross Border Law in Anchorage, Alaska.
“They enhance our security because they have language and cultural skills that the rest of the people don’t have, so they’re extremely valuable,” Stock, who is also a Ret. Lt. Col. in the Army Reserve, told msnbc.
Currently, only green-card holders and Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNIs) can enlist voluntarily. Undocumented immigrants cannot enlist voluntarily, but they can be drafted during wartime, Stock said. Cadogan received his green card in 2011.
“The thought never crossed my mind,” he said about the expedited process for service members. “Just the fact that I was serving the country was important to me.”
The naturalization of immigrants in the military is highest during times of war because longstanding federal law allows presidents to authorize their expedited citizenship, Stock said. In 2002, then-President George W. Bush issued an executive order–still in effect today–that allowed the naturalization of anyone serving honorably in the military after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“You don’t take a military commitment lightly, but to not even be a citizen to make that, to me that’s really incredible,” said Borgen, who served in the Navy. “It’s a commitment that they’re making, so everyone who serves in the military does it for a particular reason.”
The country’s military services have enlisted immigrants for more than 200 years, dating back to the Revolutionary War. As of June 2009, there were 114,601 foreign-born individuals serving in the armed forces, representing almost 8% of the 1.4 million military personnel active on duty, according to a 2009 Immigration Policy Center Special Report, “Essential to the Fight: Immigrants in the Military Eight Years After 9/11.”
“The reason I decided to serve was because it was part of me getting involved in the new country, getting involved in the society, being part of it,” Melocarela, who is originally from the Dominican Republic and was naturalized in 2007 while serving in Iraq, told msnbc. “I decided I was going to be an American, so to me that was part of being an American.”
Cadogan, along with more than 450 other immigrants who were naturalized in New York City just two days before the Fourth of July, can now apply for passports, register to vote, and serve on a jury–to name just a few privileges of U.S. citizens.
“I am happy that I can travel abroad with a U.S. passport and without even thinking about: ‘Oh I might have difficulties when I’m trying to get back in,’” Janet Lee, a veteran Navy medic who became a citizen on June 21, told msnbc.
During Cadogan’s ceremony on Tuesday, more than 50 countries were represented, including Albania, Australia, Bangladesh, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, France, Germany, Haiti, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, and Vietnam.
His mother, father, and sister, who is now 11, also became legal residents in 2011 when they received their green cards. They hope to apply for citizenship in 2016 after fulfilling the 5-year wait period upon receiving their green cards.
Cadogan, who turned 21 on the day of his naturalization ceremony, will return to college this fall and join the ROTC during the remaining three years of his undergraduate career. ROTC applicants must be citizens or become citizens within six months of applying to the program.
“After graduating, then I would love to try to become an officer so that I can actually fly,” he said. “I would like to try to go to active duty.”
Cadogan said he will register to vote and apply for a passport once he finds time in his work schedule at Abercrombie & Fitch on Fifth Avenue in the city.
But for now, he will enjoy his visit to Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains with his family to celebrate his first July Fourth as a citizen of the United States.