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Polish Immigrant to USA story

The long road from a Polish farm to pledging allegiance to the U.S.A.

Ania Szulzuk Muriel's biggest worry Wednesday was getting kicked out of the country for forgetting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Or if she didn't forget, maybe the guy next to her would, and they'd all suffer — all those hopeful immigrants eager to get sworn in as brand-new Americans.

"Some couldn't say it," 31-year-old Muriel says. "And I said, 'I hope they don't deport us.'"

Muriel was only joking, of course, but part of her concern was real. Born in Poland and an immigrant at 11, she's been trying for a decade now to become a U.S. citizen.

It's a long, arduous, maddening and expensive process. Forget to dot an "i" or cross a "t" on any number of applications, use blue ink instead of black, forget to include your middle initial, give a slightly different version of events from any part of your personal history, give an immigration officer any reason whatsoever to raise an eyebrow, and you could be sent back to square one. Or worse.

But on Thursday morning, Muriel, procurement manager at the Newport News Sheriff's Office, finally grabbed the brass ring.

She and 140 others from 51 countries from Albania to Yemen appeared at the federal courthouse in Norfolk, stood before a judge and pledged themselves to the Stars and Stripes and the Constitution, renouncing "all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty."

So help me God.

"I didn't think that I was gonna feel anything," Muriel said the next day, fielding congratulations and well-wishes from co-workers at the sheriff's office. "But, yeah, it felt good. It kind of felt like I graduated, you know? Like I accomplished something. Something I waited for for so long."

The naturalization of Ania was a long time coming. Born to a farm family in Poland, her father long dead, she arrived in the States three years after her mother had emigrated to try to "make a better life."

She spoke no English and at first was a stranger even to her mother, who after so much time apart couldn't recognize her at the airport.

The first time that she was driven through New York City, Muriel thought, "Oh, my God, I'm in heaven."

She learned English fast, growing up in Connecticut. All she can remember now of her early childhood in Poland are cold winters and teachers who liked to slap students on the hands with rulers.

Her mother is still a "green card alien," but she kept pushing her daughter to become a citizen to make her life better still.

Muriel started the process about age 20. Then she got married and moved to Newport News and had to begin all over again. When her marriage dissolved after a few years, she had a lot of explaining to do to an immigration officer.

"To them, it looked like my marriage was false," Muriel says. "I had to literally explain to her everything that happened."

The fact she'd given birth to a daughter apparently wasn't conclusive enough. Soon, Muriel was scrounging up credit card receipts, airline tickets, phone records, bank records — the minutiae of a marriage and its dissolution.

The road to citizenship has always been an uphill slog, but in the post- 9/11 world, it's an uphill slog through wet cement.

"We are very extensive in the background checks, security checks and following procedures on the forms," says Tony Bryson, director of the Norfolk Field Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Bryson's office falls under the Department of Homeland Security.

"We have to realize this is the ultimate benefit that can be granted to someone, is citizenship."

At her mother's urging, Muriel persevered. She confirmed the validity of her marriage. She kept filling out paperwork, minding her p's and q's. She studied hard for the citizenship test

Finally, in April, a letter arrived from immigration. To Muriel — accustomed to thick, cardboard-type agency envelopes — this was a thin sliver of a thing, and she was immediately suspicious. "Oh, God," she thought. "I didn't make it."

She was so nervous, she asked a friend to open it for her.

The letter inside was Muriel's official invitation to Thursday's naturalization ceremony.

A U.S. citizen at last, Muriel says now she will apply to become a deputy sheriff — one of many jobs denied her in the past as a resident alien.

"I'm happy," Muriel said Friday, sounding like she meant it. "I got a smile on my face today, all day."

Her first act as a citizen? Heading from the courthouse back to her car and finding her very first parking ticket on the windshield.

Welcome to America.