Gabriela Baird couldn’t stop smiling Thursday morning.
The 46-year-old Bozeman resident and native of Mexico become a citizen of the United States. Baird joined 24 others from 12 countries at the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse in Billings for the naturalization ceremony.
The oath was administered by U.S. District Judge Susan Watters. About 60 family members and friends sat in the gallery watching the proceedings.
Baird was joined by her husband, Rex, and their infant twins, Isabel Marie and Rex Thomas.
“I feel very blessed to be able to live in this country with my children and my husband,” Baird said. “I love that it’s very safe and you have the promise of a better life.”
Baird, who is from Mexico and lived in Monterrey, met her husband when he was in Texas to visit his house down there.
“My cousin was the girlfriend of his friend living in the house,” she said.
That's how the two met, which then led to a long-distance relationship.
“And poof, after four years we got married,” Baird said.
In a time when the topic of immigration has stirred a hornet’s nest of controversy, Baird said there are no easy answers. Some people risk their lives coming to the United States illegally and they leave their children behind when they do it.
Baird also said it doesn’t seem fair that illegal immigrants use services but don’t pay their fair share of taxes. On the other hand, they flee untenable situations for the hope of what they’ll find across the border, she said.
“I think it would be hard to be in that situation,” Baird said.
Having lived among violence in Monterrey, she appreciates the peace and safety she has found in the United States.
“The people are very warm in Montana, very welcoming,” Baird said.
During the ceremony, each of the 25 participants stood and was introduced. They raised their right hand and spoke the oath of allegiance, repeating the words spoken by Deputy Clerk Heather McLean.
Watters then presented each new citizen a naturalization certificate. They also received small U.S. flags given to them by members of Daughters of the American Revolution.
Congratulatory letters were read by representatives of Montana’s congressional delegation. Then Watters spoke a few remarks to the new citizens.
A naturalization ceremony is one of the few joyful occasions that takes place in her courtroom, she said. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the rights and freedoms given by the Constitution for all Americans to enjoy.
Freedom of religion lets citizens worship as they please, and freedom of speech lets people speak their minds, Watters said. Freedom of the press allows journalists to report on anyone in government, no matter how high their position.
And every citizen can make their own mark.
“You have the right to vote,” she said. “You could register today after the ceremony, and I encourage you to do that. That is the only way you can have a say in government.”
Watters acknowledged that the United States has its share of problems.
“We’ll be a better place because you are now United States citizens,” she said. “Thank you for your hard work. Congratulations.”
Gabriele Mackenzie, originally from Germany, moved with her husband, Scott, from Canada to Montana in 1996. The couple met in Germany when Scott Mackenzie was stationed in the military.
Asked what mattered most to her about becoming a citizen, Mackenzie said the right to vote.
“I wanted to vote in this last election but I couldn’t,” she said. “That is important. That means a lot to me.”