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Orem • Thousands of people crowded Scera Park on Friday to celebrate being American by eating hot dogs, exploring history exhibits and playing games during the Freedom Festival — but 18 actually came to become new U.S. citizens.

"This country is a land of opportunity, particularly for immigrants," James Kommu, a software engineer who emigrated from India, told hundreds of people who had just given him and 17 other immigrants a standing ovation for taking the oath of citizenship.

Holding a U.S. flag, he told of living the American dream. He came on an H-1B visa in 1999 because high-tech companies needed his skills. He worked for several firms and later started his own company. He has two daughters at Brigham Young University and one at Timpview High School.

"I am truly blessed. This is the most significant day in my life," he said, adding he was "especially excited that it is happening during Independence Day time."

Then he made a promise.

"I want to be loyal and faithful," he said. "I want to contribute significantly to this nation. That's my pledge."

It has become an annual tradition as part of the multi-day Freedom Festival in Utah County to swear in new citizens to help celebrate Independence Day.

On Friday, the new citizens hailed from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, India, Mexico, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Nicholas Van Vuuren came from South Africa. "I originally followed a girl," which was a good reason to immigrate, he added, since she eventually became his wife. His future wife's mother had just married an American and moved to Utah. So she brought her then-17-year-old daughter. Without her, Van Vuuren said nothing seemed to remain for him in South Africa, and he was "lucky enough to get a scholarship to study at Utah Valley University" and a student visa.

"She [his girlfriend] became American. We got married, and had kids, and got a mortgage."

Van Vuuren now works at a technology company.

Finally becoming a citizen "is a load off," he said. "Americans are able to do a few more things here than South Africans. ... All my family is still in South Africa. Having the opportunity to eventually bring them over is nice. I'm sure you know, but things are not good in South Africa."

He said his son also asked him excitedly if becoming a citizen "means I will talk like other Americans now," without his South African accent. His resulting laugh, at least, sounded truly American.

Douglas Wood immigrated from Canada five years ago and, ironically, was becoming a U.S. citizen on Canada Day and just before July Fourth. "There's some magic in that," he said. "To be able to participate in this so close to Independence Day is profound."

He said he watched a play in the park about U.S. history before the naturalization ceremony, and "my wife and I have been in tears. We have a deep appreciation for what's been done to make this land possible. I hope we can continue on with that heritage and add to it."

Arcadio Madrigal immigrated from Mexico 17 years ago and became a citizen on the birthday of his wife, Courtnie.

"First I came here to support my parents in Mexico. I came here for opportunity, then I met my wife and we had kids," he said, adding he has his own handyman business now.

"I will be able to vote now, and I'm sure that I will be with my kids all the time," he said with a smile. His wife added, "He can provide a better future for them now, too."

Evelyn Barker also immigrated from Mexico 13 years ago as a 17-year-old to become a student at BYU. "I met my husband, we got married." They have three children. She adds she is "finally joining them" as a citizen.

Becoming a citizen "brings peace to my life knowing that I can actually participate and do the things that everyone else does. This country has been very good to me, and I am just more than astonished to become a citizen."

Nationally, more than 7,000 new citizens are being sworn in through nearly 100 naturalization ceremonies over the long Fourth of July weekend.