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Raise your right hand and swear; 135 children of new Americans pledge allegiance to United States

By: MARK JOHNSON of the Journal Sentinel staff, April 13, 2002 Saturday

Kong Lee clutched the flag and listened intently.

The immigration official at the front of the crowded room said, "Becoming a citizen is not only an honor, but a privilege that you should not take lightly. Although most of you are quite young, you will appreciate this day many times over in the course of your lives."

Lee thought about how he would stand. He is a 15-year-old Hmong immigrant who describes his birthplace, the city of K-52 in Laos, from pictures, not from personal memory, as "a bunch of houses made out of haystacks."

He is an American now, and when he took the oath on Friday in Milwaukee, he wanted to capture all that it meant.

"You only get one time to do it," he said. "You only get one time to say the oath meaningfully. I wanted to hold the flag and booklet in my arm just like the Statue of Liberty."

"Please stand and raise your right hand."

His parents, Thao and Pa Lee, remained seated while Lee and 70 other boys and girls from 20 countries stood. Earlier on Friday, another 65 children stood and read the same oath they would now recite.

Officially, all of them became citizens the instant their parents did. But children between 14 and 18 must also take the Oath of Allegiance in order to receive their certificate of citizenship, the document that allows them to apply for a passport.

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty . . ."

Kong Lee and his family escaped from Laos in 1989 and took refuge in the United States. They live in Appleton, where Lee is a sophomore at Appleton East High School.

He has thought sometimes about what his life would be like in Laos. Although he is only 15, he would be married with a family by now. Young marriages are the custom.

At Appleton East, he has been looking ahead to college and a career in law. In Laos, he would be too worried about keeping his family safe to pursue such a career. He would probably be a farmer.

The opportunities of his new country come with obligations, too.

". . . that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic . . ."

Of all the words in the oath, these had special meaning for him.

"Now I'm an American, and I have to defend the country," he said. "That's such an honor."

The oath finished with these words, "I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion: So help me God."

A few rows in front of Lee, Naseer Farooqui watched his two sons, Humza, 18, and Talha, 15, complete the journey they began in 1988 from their home in southern India to the place they now call home, Kenosha.

"It was a sense of pride for us to become citizens of the U.S.," Farooqui said. "This is an opportunity that very few understand how great it is. . . . We intend to go for a nice dinner to celebrate.

"This is a great day for us. We have waited so long, and finally it has happened for us."

Kong Lee could understand the feelings of Farooqui and his sons.

"As I was taking the oath today, I can actually feel good about myself now that I've become a citizen of the United States," he said. "Ever since the United States and the Hmong people lost the Vietnam War, I felt that I didn't belong to any country since we did lose Laos to the communist government. Now I can hold hands with my fellow Americans and say, 'I'm a citizen, too. I'm one of you guys.' I can now call United States home."

He planned to celebrate in his own way.

"I think I'll do homework to celebrate," he said.