Tampa couples become naturalized citizens for Valentine's Day

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Dozens of people became new U.S. citizens during a special Valentine's Day ceremony in Tampa Thursday, capping off years of hard work.

The Feb. 14 naturalization ceremony has become a tradition at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration office in Tampa, during which several couples choose to celebrate the holiday by becoming official American citizens.

"I grow in this country. I learn a lot in this country. I give a lot to this country. This country give me a lot: my family, my kids," said Jorge Quevedo, an immigrant from Peru.

"It's been an awesome day. We've been looking today for four or five years now and today has come, so it's been all joy, all happiness," said Mathew Potakey, an Ghanan immigrant.

Becoming a U.S. citizen can take between three to five years, but many legally live in the country for decades and are well-established in their communities before deciding to become citizens.

"Doing one step at a time to become part of the community in a full sense I think is very important," said Aleksandra Stojicevic, who immigrated from Yugoslavia about 20 years ago.

This ceremony took place as the immigration debate along the U.S.-Mexico border once again took center stage, with President Trump appearing ready to declare a national emergency to secure funding to build a border wall.

At the same time, immigration officials are trying to deal with thousands of asylum-seekers, while continuing to handle illegal border crossings.

Some of the people who were naturalized Thursday understand how desperation can drive some migrants to try to enter the country at any cost.

"Some other countries, they have violence, they have drugs, they have a lot of things. Us, we have family and the only thing that we want is to be in a secure place," said Ayned Avila, a Cuban immigrant.

But they also agree about how important it is for immigrants to take the proper, legal steps.

"That is what I've been telling my wife all the time: you're in America, let's go by their rules and you'll be fine," Potakey said.

"The route to citizenship isn't easy but it's worth it and I think that if you do it the right way and you take the correct steps, it's all worth it in the end," added Jelena Stojicevic, Aleksandra Stojicevic's daughter.

In 2017, more than 9,000 people were naturalized in Tampa. Last year, that number jumped to more than 16,000.