On Thursday, April 23, 2015 San Jose Mission in San Antonio, Texas held its very first naturalization ceremony during National Park Week. It was an exciting day for the 49 men and women from 22 different countries, including, Japan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Spain, Guinea-Bissau and Mexico seeking to become American citizens.
US Magistrate Judge John Primomo administered the oath of citizenship and National Park Service Director, Jonathan Jarvis, welcomed the newcomers by giving a short history of the parks in America. He emphasized that the parks belong to all Americans and that they could tour the historic missions whenever they wanted.
Among the applicants was a very special person to St Joseph’s Honey Creek Catholic community, Father Pancho Puente. Father Pancho as he is affectionately called was ordained a priest on May 19, 2000 and was appointed pastor of St Joseph’s on July 1, 2014.
Father Puente spoke of his journey in becoming an American citizen. I asked Father Puente how he felt now that he was a citizen and his answer was inspiring. He told me, “First I’m happy, peaceful and proud to be part of this nation that welcomed me with open arms 20 years ago. I came as a student and now they are continuing to welcome me with open arms as a citizen.” He said that as a citizen he had many reasons to be grateful: “I’m really grateful for the people that welcomed me over 20 years ago and for our brothers and sisters, veterans and the military people that risk their lives to protect the liberty and justice for all in this country.” He continued, “I am really grateful for their service.” He continued by saying, “I am proud for all the accomplishments the people from this country have made, so now, I am going to join them to do the best for our community.”
My next question followed his answer: Did it take you 20 years to become a citizen? Is that the process?
“No, the process is different for everybody. For me I first came here as a student with a student visa, several years later, as a religious worker and then a few years later I became a permanent resident.” He explained, “You have the right to apply for citizenship after being a resident for five years. So I waited almost 10 years not 5 years.” It took Father Puente an extra five years because he had an ailing mother and was travelling back and forth to Mexico and wasn’t able to concentrate on the paperwork and all that it entails to becoming a citizen. “So that’s why it took me all this time,” he said.
I asked if the tests were difficult and if he had to attend class.
“Well no because I knew English already. So immigration gave me the materials and the booklets and the questions. There are 100 questions and they can ask you ten randomly at the time of the test. Difficult, I don’t think so, if you really study. You really have to study because there is nothing for free.”
He told me that he had to apply for permanent residency and that process also took time. “It is a very intense process” he said. You have to take a physical test that must be approved by immigration and also a questionnaire. These results are then forwarded to a judge. You start paying taxes for the next five years. Then you become a permanent resident. He did admit that this was a difficult process since it can take anywhere from one to two years depending on circumstances.
He divided his 20 year journey as follows:
- The first was as a visitor/tourist
- Student visa (does not count towards permanent residency)
- Religious worker visa
- Permanent resident
He made a very poignant comment. “A good citizen is a good Christian.” He also stated that one should “always follow the laws of the country.”
Father Jose Francisco Puente-Flores is his official American name and he wants everyone to use his American name. Father Puente-Flores’ smile told me that he was definitely happy to come to the end of his historic journey in becoming an American. At the Sunday mass following the ceremony he announced to the parishioners that he was extremely proud to be an American and grateful to everyone for welcoming him. He received a rousing standing ovation. Congratulations, Father Puente-Flores, and “Welcome to America!”