Mesa hosted its annual Celebration of Freedom Festival for Fourth of July on Wednesday, complete with food, music, art, fireworks and a naturalization ceremony in which 325 people were welcomed as U.S. citizens.

The ceremony, celebrating its third consecutive year, hosted people from 58 different countries, each of which was named off into the microphone as its previous residents stood from their seats. Together with their friends and families, they all joined in singing the Star Spangled Banner.

The candidates then took their Oath of Allegiance and received their Certificate of Naturalization, at long last. Tears and cheers could be heard throughout the Mesa Convention Center. U.S. flags were being waved throughout the audience, friends and family were embracing each other. “It is a pretty touching event, especially for those becoming U.S. Citizens and their families. My nephew’s wife’s grandfather is becoming a U.S. Citizen today after 20 years. He is from South Africa,” said Steven Wright, Mesa’s Director of Public Information and Communications.

A video message from President Donald Trump was then shown on the large projector screens. “You have pledged allegiance to America, and when you give your love, and when you give your love and loyalty to America, she returns her love and loyalty to you. We share one American heart, and one American destiny. It is a destiny filled with love, opportunity and hope. We celebrate this day. We welcome you into our national family,” Trump said.

The keynote speaker at the event, Mesa Mayor John Giles, commended the diversity in America. “It is the diversity resulting from immigration that has made this country strong,” said Giles. He later posted pictures of himself, Vice Mayor David Luna and some of the new U.S. citizens on Twitter, and said that it was an honor to be the keynote speaker at the ceremony, adding, “I can’t think of a better day to recite the Oath of Allegiance!”

The number of participants in the Mesa ceremony has grown throughout the three years, with the first year hosting 125 candidates, 200 last year and 325 this year, according to Wright.

Over the span of the holiday week, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services [USCIS] will naturalize over 14,000 people across America, 231 of which were hosted at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix on Wednesday.

Attaining citizenship has become increasingly difficult, as wait times have grown from eight months to as long as 20 months, according to Joshua Hoyt, Executive Director at National

Partnership for New Americans [NPNA]. In the past year, over 925,000 people applied for citizenship in the U.S. and the backlog of pending applications has grown to 729,400 as of this month – an increase of 87.59% since December 31, 2015, during the Obama Administration. As of the beginning of this year, there are 12,662 applications for naturalization that are still pending in the Phoenix area, according to data from the USCIS. As of December 31, 2017, Arizona ranks number 13 out of the top 15 states with the largest backlog of citizenship applications.

A July 2 report by NPNA accuses the growing backlog of serving as an effective “second wall,” as it prevents eligible lawful residents from becoming citizens and voters. The report also states that each person in the backlogs has been lawfully present in the U.S. for a minimum of five years and paid $730 to fill out and submit a 21-page naturalization application, although Hoyt said, “There is a fee waiver for the very poor, and a partial waiver for the working poor.”

Applicants in the backlogs have also provided their fingerprints for a background check and are now waiting to take their citizenship exam so that they can take their Oath of Citizenship. Despite all of the steps taken to become a citizen, the applicants are still at risk of arrest, detention and deportation during their waiting period due to vigorous immigration enforcement by the Trump Administration.

The NPNA is now launching a national campaign, the Naturalize NOW Campaign, in attempts to reduce the waiting time to six months, and reduce the backlog.  Included within the campaign is a plan to facilitate and unite mayors, cities, and community-based organizations in order to increase naturalization events and other efforts. Mesa will continue to be part of the solution, as the City, in conjunction with the East Valley Veterans Parade, will be hosting another naturalization ceremony in November at the Mesa Arts Center.