FORT SMITH, Ark. (KNWA) — Marisol Chanthavong sat in a room full of American flags, family, friends and about a dozen immigrants during a naturalization ceremony Friday. There was a time when she didn’t think she’d ever get a chance at citizenship, so the celebration was filled with tears, laughs and joy.
“It’s such a big relief,” Chanthavong said. “I feel like I’m free.”
In July 2019, Chanthavong expressed fear toward her citizenship chances. When she went through the application process to become a legal permanent resident in the early 2000s, an immigration agent forgot to mention she needed to pay a $1,000 fee, said Aaron Cash, her attorney.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rejected her citizenship application years later because the fee wasn’t paid.
“In my head, I’m like, ‘this is so unfair. I shouldn’t be having to go through this,'” Chanthavong said at the time. “If I had known that over 10 years ago that I needed to pay, of course I would pay it.”
In response to questions posed in July 2019 about the issue, USCIS public affairs officer Sharon Scheidhauer said the government is unable to comment due to pending litigation.
Chanthavong solicited the help of Cash to find another way to move forward and achieve her dream of becoming an American citizen. An appeal within USCIS was denied, so Cash filed in the federal district court in Fayetteville.
“After we filed that lawsuit, USCIS instructed the attorney to offer us a deal so that she could pay that $1000 late, which is all that she ever wanted to do,” Cash said.
Friday’s visit to USCIS had a much happier tone. Chanthavong was surrounded by friends and family, including her husband.
“I’m all in,” Toubi Chanthavong said. “That’s why [I’ve been] with her for 20 years. We’ve been doing everything right.”
Chanthavong shed both the fear she’s carried for two decades and a few tears as Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” blasted over a speaker following a congratulatory video message by President Trump.
“It’s like, ‘yes, I did it!'” Chanthavong said. “I can be free to go and come back whenever I want without worries that something’s gonna happen, something’s gonna be misunderstood and [I’m] not gonna be able to come back home.”