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JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. – An 87th Logistics Readiness Squadron airman assigned here was full of nerves on the morning of Nov. 16, as he was about to become a U.S. citizen in a New York ceremony broadcast live on NBC’s “Today" show.
Senior Airman Jorge Contreras, a materiel management journeyman and a native of Peru, has served in the U.S. Air Force for the past four years, but he said he has known for years that he wanted to become a citizen.
“I feel like I’m already a citizen,” he said. “The ceremony is more of a formality.”
Contreras’ quest to become a citizen began in 2010. “I had already lived in America for 11 years when I decided to become a citizen,” said Contreras, who calls Elizabeth, N.J., home. “I was raised in this culture, so I feel like I’m a part of it. I know this is where I want to raise my family.”
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services department contacted Contreras two months after he submitted his application for citizenship and invited him to attend the “Today" program ceremony.
“I felt really excited about it,” he said. “They saw something in me, and I felt really humbled that they called me.”
An NBC crew traveled here Nov. 8, once Contreras’ chain of command approved.
“I was nervous at first when the crew came down,” Contreras said. “But then I realized all they wanted to see was me, and you can never be nervous about yourself. Once I got to know the team in person, all my nervousness went away.”
The “Today" team invited Contreras’ mother, Luz Reque, and girlfriend, Karla Espinoza, to attend the show and watch as he made the life-changing declaration.
“I am extremely proud of him,” Espinoza said. “I know he tries really hard at everything he does, so I feel it is something he deserves.” Espinoza, a citizen of Ecuador, also is working toward U.S. citizenship.
Nine co-workers and fellow airmen also traveled to New York to support Contreras.
“This is a pretty big deal for him,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Aldrine Estrella, an 87th LRS materiel management craftsman.
“I went through the same thing a few years ago, so I know how big of a deal it is to become a U.S. citizen,” Estrella said.
Estrella, a native of the Philippines, earned his U.S. citizenship in 2010. He said he encouraged Contreras to do the same, but was quick to point out that Contreras didn’t need much encouragement.
As Contreras scanned the spread of muffins, fruit and bagels the “Today” team put out before the ceremony, he couldn’t help but smile in appreciation for what was to come.
“My mom is here, my girlfriend is here, and all the airmen are here,” he said. “I feel so honored.”
The 38-degree temperature did not stand in the way of the excited soon-to-be U.S. citizens who anxiously awaited the ceremony at Rockefeller Plaza.
“Once they got everything in motion, I said to myself, ‘Forget the cold,’” Contreras said. “I was very happy to get my citizenship in front of my family.”
Contreras became a U.S. citizen along with 29 other immigrants, and now can enjoy all the rights he has fought to preserve.
“It feels awesome to now be able to take advantage of all the rights I’ve been defending,” said Contreras, who enlisted in the Air Force at age 21. “To me, it is less of an official title and more of a commitment.”
With his commitment to the U.S. in his heart, at the forefront of Contreras’ mind throughout the whole process was his family.
“A lot of doors just opened for me, and now I am ready to explore them and make my family proud,” he said.