In her singsong voice, Sarah Moses asked the nervous 22-year-old Colombian man questions about American civics and culture: What is the name of the national anthem? At what age may a citizen vote? Why does the American flag have 13 stripes?
Juan Sebastian Bustamante Sanchez, who took the naturalization test at the G.H. Fallon Federal Building last week, had more in common with Moses than he realized. Moses, an officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, also had to pass the examination to become an American citizen.
She immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago with her parents and siblings when she was 8. The family settled in Coral Springs, Fla.
"It is amazing how life comes full circle," said Moses, now 40, the lilt of her Caribbean homeland still in her voice. She is an attorney who practiced immigration law for 12 years in South Florida before moving to Annapolis and joining immigration services in May 2011.
"It is an amazing experience to congratulate new applicants, because I know how it feels and I know what it's like to take that oath and experience it. There is a sense of excitement, because the world is open."
Bustamante, who passed his test, is one of more than 15,400 Maryland residents who have been naturalized this year so far. Moses administers, on average, about 10 examinations each workday.
Passing the naturalization test is one of many steps foreigners take to become Americans. In most cases, the process also includes obtaining a green card to become a permanent resident, learning to read, write and speak English, and studying U.S. history and government.
Bustamante came to the United States as a child after his father was granted asylum from their native Colombia.
"I'm a little bit nervous," he told Moses.
"Relax," Moses said. "Don't be."
Moses kept a smile on her face as she continued the exam. Bustamante nailed the questions, and Moses asked about his life: Whether he had ever been a "drunkard," if he had ever visited a prostitute, and if he had a criminal record or ever received a speeding ticket.
Bustamante answered "no" to each.
Such sessions last about 20 minutes each, and include a portion where the applicant must declare his commitment to the country, his support for the Constitution and his willingness to bear arms on behalf of the United States.
Moses warned Bustamante: "This is a very important part."
Sanchez attests to relevant parts of the Oath of Allegiance that he will take during his upcoming naturalization ceremony, the final step to becoming a citizen.
"See, it wasn't so bad," Moses said. "You did very well."
Moses spoke of the importance of her job in the graduation speech she gave as president of her class for immigration training.
"We hold a person's future, their dreams, their goals and their hopes in our hands," Moses said. "The answers we provide, the policy that we shape and the decisions that we make will undoubtedly affect the lives of not just those individuals we come in contact with, but their children and their children's children."
In addition to administering the naturalization test and determining whether the individuals be approved or denied for citizenship, Moses also reviews family- and employment-based petitions to determine whether to grant green cards to immigrants who want to stay in the country.
She also helps conduct the oath ceremonies, which she says is the highlight of her job.