The Great Smoky Mountains stand as the most-visited National Park in the United States. On Thursday, dozens of visitors in the park officially became United States citizens.
Chief Judge Tom Varlan presided over a naturalization ceremony for 39 people on the lawn of the Great Smoky Mountains headquarters.
As part of the centennial celebration of the National Park Service, naturalization ceremonies have been planned at sites ranging from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Grand Canyon.
"Where more appropriate than here in the national park? This special that belongs to all American citizens, new and old," said Clay Jordan, GSMNP Deputy Superintendent as he addressed the new citizens.
Jwaly Morillo obtained his citizenship during Thursday’s ceremony. The 21-year-old is no stranger to the United States. Morillo has lived in this nation most of his life.
"I was born in the Dominican Republic. I moved here when I was around nine-years-old. I live in Powell, Tennessee, and went to Powell High School, so this is where I live. I just don't see myself going back or living in the Dominican Republic, so I wanted to become a citizen," said Morillo. "My sister went through the process and became a citizen and really encouraged me to do it, too."
Morillo said when he started the naturalization process, he expected the final ceremony to be similar to the one he attended for his sister. Instead, his ceremony was a unique outdoor experience. Federal court historians have said they have no record of a federal judge holding a naturalization ceremony in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"I was imagining being in a courtroom. I definitely didn't expect this at all. I'm definitely going to remember this location. I'm going to remember this park for sure," said Morillo.
While Morillo has lived in the United States, he said the moment was significant because America is no longer just his residence. It is his country.
"If I'm not a citizen, I don't feel like I'm really attached to this place as much as I should be. Now I can vote. I don't have to renew my residency. Becoming a citizen is a big thing, " said Morillo.
Fourth-graders from Pi Beta Phi Elementary in Gatlinburg led the Pledge of Allegiance. Singer Lakieta Bagwell, who performs at Smoky Mountain Opry, sang the national anthem.
The naturalization ceremony was held to observe the centennial of the National Park Service, but also National Constitution and Citizenship Day. Many events are scheduled throughout the United States on Friday to mark the occasion.
The idea for naturalization ceremonies in national parks came from Rebecca Fanning, national outreach manager for the federal courts, which is part of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington. Fanning, in a news release, compared our national parks to "green cathedrals" that can inspire and evoke a greater connection to what it is to be an American.
(© 2016 WBIR)