The swearing in of new American citizens has become a popular event at the annual Fourth of July Parade sponsored by the Dunwoody Homeowners Association. But this year, the federal government has backed out, saying it will hold a smaller event at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library instead.
A Dunwoody immigration attorney speculated the decision could be due to an anti-immigrant sentiment rising within the current administration under President Donald Trump. U.S. Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) said it was her understanding the government is trying to use resources more efficiently.
DHA President Adrienne Duncan said she hopes the ceremony will come back to Dunwoody in the future.
“We’re disappointed, but the show will go on,” Duncan said. “Hopefully they will come back next year if the resources at Homeland Security change.”
The Fourth of July Parade, which attracts thousands to the city, began holding naturalization ceremonies in Dunwoody Village following the parade in 2015 and the ceremony has grown over the years. Last year, nearly 80 new citizens hailing from 36 countries were sworn in as family members and parade revelers cheered. Patriotic tunes played by a U.S. Army band accompanied the ceremony.
To host a naturalization ceremony, a site or organization must first apply with the local office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and meet criteria established by the federal government. USCIS is a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Duncan said she filled out the usual paperwork to host the ceremony, but this year the Atlanta field office declined the invitation in a March 20 email.
“Thank you for the offer to host a naturalization ceremony at the Dunwoody Village for the Dunwoody Homeowners Association on July 4, 2018,” the email said. “Due to mission requirements and our allocation of resources, we have reduced the number of offsite naturalization ceremonies we will be conducting this year for the Atlanta Field Office. As a result, we regretfully decline your request.”
The Atlanta field office did not respond to a request for comment, but USCIS officials serving the Southeast said the agency decided to hold a “special” ceremony instead.
“We wish to clarify that there was no change of venue for the Atlanta field office’s planned 4th of July naturalization ceremony,” said a USCIS written statement. “We never agreed to participate in the Dunwoody 4th of July celebration this year.
“We take into consideration many different venues for special ceremonies — including venues that have hosted us in the past. Budget was not a factor in this situation. Rather, this year the Atlanta office has decided to hold a special naturalization ceremony at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta for the 4th of July. We expect to naturalize about 25 people at that ceremony.”
Nisha Karnani, a Dunwoody resident and immigration attorney with the firm Antonin & Cohen located on Buford Highway in Brookhaven, said she was sad to hear the ceremony wouldn’t take place at her hometown’s parade.
“It’s really a nice thing to have with the parade,” she said. “Dunwoody is a very international city and it was a really nice part of the celebration.”
She said she wondered whether the relocation had anything to do with national political debates about immigration policy.
In February, USCIS Director L. Frank Cissna, appointed by President Donald Trump, changed the mission statement of the agency to remove the phrase characterizing the country as “a nation of immigrants.”
The statement from 2005 read: “U.S.C.I.S. secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system.”
The new version approved in February states: “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland and honoring our values.”
Karnani said immigration attorneys around the country are seeing a significant slowdown in application approvals. When the process once took four to six months, it now takes close to a year, she said. “And these are what feeds into the naturalization ceremonies,” she said.
“There is general unrest with the current administration … and you have to wonder if it’s a general effort to slow down legal immigration,” she added.
Rep. Handel, whose district includes Dunwoody, said it appeared USCIS was consolidating resources, which could explain the new location.
“While it appears that events are being consolidated to maximize resources, the important thing is that those who have worked legally to become citizens will still be welcomed as fellow Americans at a ceremony at the Carter Center,” Handel said in a written statement. “These naturalization celebrations, especially those held on July 4, are a reminder to all of us of the significant positive contributions of legal immigration to America. I look forward to celebrating our nation’s independence in Dunwoody and across the 6th District this July.”
The USCIS Atlanta field office holds special naturalization ceremonies at off-site locations approximately five to 10 times per year. Locations for those ceremonies are based on many factors, including historic or cultural significance, and possible themes special ceremonies might have, according to USCIS officials.
In March, USCIS canceled a planned naturalization ceremony sponsored by a refugee agency at the Georgia state Capitol, citing updated rules that prohibit ceremonies from being held where political and immigration activism takes place.