LOUISVILLE — Cuban native Hermys Yanes flashed a broad smile and waved an American flag in allegiance to his new country as hundreds of immigrants took part in an enormous citizenship ceremony Friday.
In what officials called the most diverse naturalization event ever held in Kentucky, 567 people from 91 countries raised their right hands in unison and took the oath of allegiance in becoming American citizens.
"It has been one of the greatest days of my life," a beaming Yanes said afterward.
The 35-year-old Yanes said he's on track to graduate from the University of Louisville in December and then hopes to land a nursing job in his adopted city of 7½ years.
"Here I have the greatest opportunity," he said.
The naturalization ceremony coincided with Louisville's WorldFest celebration, which celebrates the city's diversity.
The newest citizens stood to bask in applause from the crowd filling a convention center ballroom when their native countries were called out. They put their hands over their hearts while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Relatives snapped photos to commemorate the moments.
U.S. District Judge John Heyburn II, who administered the oath of allegiance, called it a "glorious day" and noted that many participants were already making contributions as teachers, volunteers and in other roles. He said it was a refreshing change from another of his duties — sending criminals to prison.
"It is so terrific when as a judge I have an opportunity ... to open up opportunity to so many people," Heyburn said.
Former U.S. Rep. Romano Mazzoli, whose father immigrated from Italy as an 11-year-old, urged the newest citizens to "create your own chapter of the American dream. Live that life well and full."
The new citizens embodied the recent population growth in Jefferson County.
According to census figures, immigrants accounted for about half the county's gain of 28,667 people from 1990 to 2000, said Ron Crouch, director of the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville. From 2000 to 2006, the influx of foreign-born people outpaced the county's population growth of 7,896, he said.
Crouch said society should welcome immigrants to help reinforce a work force that will shoulder the responsibility of supporting health care and retirement programs for an ever-increasing aging population.
"Basically they are going to determine how well we do in retirement, and how well our country does in the future as far as a work force," he said.
For some of the newest citizens, it was a chance to put behind a difficult past.
Mohammad Ibrahimi, 68, and his 89-year-old mother, Mariam Ibrahimi, had to flee Afghanistan because of unrest. They took refuge in Pakistan for about three years before coming to Louisville six years ago.
Floran Ibrahimi, who became a U.S. citizen about three weeks earlier, said her father and grandmother were both happy to gain American citizenship.
To become a citizen, most immigrants must be legal permanent residents at least five years.
Other requirements are that they provide background information, go through criminal background checks and pass a U.S. civics and history test to gain citizenship.
Judith Del Carpio Malpartida, a native of Peru who became a U.S. citizen Friday along with her husband, Javier, said she has always told her three children to express their opinions. But yet she couldn't always do so herself, since her lack of U.S. citizenship kept her from voting.
"This is a step for me personally to say, 'OK, I belong here, this is my home,'" she said. "It's a great country. It has given me so many opportunities."