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Jun 30, 2015 10:46 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Two Immigrants Finally Celebrate Their Citizenship

Lula Castillo will celebrate her first full year as an American citizen this 4th of July. ALISHA STEINDECKER
Jun 30, 2015 2:53 PM

Many people will celebrate this country’s independence the way they do every year on the Fourth of July—with burgers, beers and backyard barbecues. Newly minted American citizens, or other immigrants who’ll gain their citizenship in the near future, will celebrate with extra enthusiasm and gratitude.“To become a citizen is the joy of freedom,” said Lula Castillo, a Southampton resident originally from Colombia who will celebrate her first full year as a U.S. citizen this July.

Ms. Castillo came to the United States 15 years ago not speaking a word of English. She had left her family behind and knew only one person here, her brother, Juan Castillo.

“I am happy because, for me, this country gave me the opportunity to develop my career,” said Ms. Castillo, who owns her own jewelry business and makes necklaces and bracelets out of natural materials, such as plants, fruit peels, seeds and beans. Ms. Castillo, who participates in art shows across the East End almost every weekend, said she also recognizes that not every immigrant has as much success or opportunity.

The stability of the law in the United States is why she wanted to stay here, she said. “Here, time is money,” she said, adding that commitment is important. “Rules are made for the law, and in my [native] country, we don’t do that.”

Acquiring her citizenship wasn’t easy. It took almost three years, from the time of filing the application to actually receiving citizenship papers.

“I would love people to know how tough it is to get it,” Ms. Castillo said, explaining that most American-born citizens really have no idea of the struggle. Her taxes were repeatedly checked to ensure that she was paying them regularly, and it cost thousands of dollars to pay for the application process, from hiring a legal aide to the actual application forms. “It’s not easy to know the process or get to know the law,” she said. “It is difficult but not impossible.”

For Elvia Bennett, also of Southampton, the road to becoming a citizen was difficult as well. “It’s not just an interview,” she pointed out.

Ms. Bennett had lived in this country for many years with a residence card, and when she tried to apply for citizenship, the government would do no more than renew her residence card each year.

“Having my residence for many years, I always felt afraid to go back,” Ms. Bennett said of returning to Colombia, her country of origin, and the prospect of not being able to return to the United States if she had gone back there. “For so many years, it felt like it was dragging you down, and now being able to come and go back is great.”

Ms. Bennett will become an American citizen in about two weeks—a process that has taken her six years. “To me,” she said, “it’s just that I am grateful to this country. It’s my second home.”

She said that living in Southampton is “beautiful,” and that she and her husband, Jason Bennett, try to take advantage of it, in particular by going to the beach as much as possible. She also said she feels the need to give back.

“I would always tell my husband to vote and say, ‘You have to be my voice, too.’” Her eyes widened when she expressed excitement about being able to cast her own vote in the upcoming presidential elections. “Getting citizenship literally means freedom,” Ms. Bennett said.

The sentiment was the same for Ms. Castillo, who said that living in this country illegally for six years after her student visa expired made her determined to establish citizenship.

“When you’re not legal, you don’t count,” she said. Now, “knowing about life” and being involved in the community is what she said she loves most. “I’m excited to vote,” she said. “To be American, I feel proud, happiness and accomplishment.”

Ms. Castillo referenced Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in support of gay marriage. “That’s the thing—we are all equal,” she said. Even the man who holds the sign at the 7-Eleven in Southampton that says “Deport Illegals,” she said, has a legitimate right to do so, even if it bothers her. “You have to respect, because that is what this country is about—freedom of speech,” she said.

And to celebrate, Ms. Castillo will be playing samba in the Fourth of July parade in Southampton Village on Saturday.

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Congratulations!
By Crabby (63), Southampton on Jul 6, 15 11:10 AM
two down, 2,000 plus in southampton to go

do the right thing illegals

at least learn english and don't keep all of your money in the immigrant community
By llimretaw (118), watermill on Jul 7, 15 7:51 AM
kind of mean...
By lulacas (1), Southampton on Jul 19, 15 11:29 PM