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636 take oath as U.S. citizens

The newest batch of American citizens were asked to double-check the sex identification on their certificates because, said U.S. Immigration and Naturalization officer Ken Vasquez, "It would be easier to get a sex change operation than to have INS correct it."

That humor, along with the 316 naturalizations Wednesday morning, were comforting signs some things have returned to normal since Sept. 11.

Immigrants are still becoming citizens for the same reasons: a better way of life, religious freedom, or simply because "we elected to live here and we would like to have the same rights everyone else has," said Ehab Amin, 42, of Egypt.

The monthly naturalization ceremony at the Tampa Convention Center was typical of ceremonies past, said Kristen Holland, an INS spokeswoman. Another 320 were inducted in the afternoon.

Sixty countries were represented.

"Argentina! Bangladesh! Belgium!" called the announcer as new citizens stood up. A Turkish woman did a jig when her country was called. A Ukrainian woman smiled into a camera held by her husband.

"We truly have a mini-United Nations right here in this room," said James Minton of the INS.

Guest speaker Alina Ortiz, district manager of the local Social Security office, told the audience of her coming to America from Cuba, a process that included a language mix-up of cottage cheese and cream cheese.

"Amazing how the smallest things could be so problematic," Ortiz said.

Ghada Eldin, a pediatrician and mother of two, came to America when her husband, a Spring Hill cardiologist, decided to return to his native Egypt for a wife.

They met for a day, argued, and a week later he called and proposed, Eldin said. They are now active in Spring Hill's Muslim community.

"Americans really appreciate their country," Eldin, 33, said in explaining why she wanted to become a citizen. "I saw this before and after Sept. 11."

Moshe Begiyev, 50, came to America from Uzbekistan for religious freedom. He is Jewish and fled when Uzbekistan separated from Russia. His journey brought him from Moscow to New York to Sarasota.

First, he worked at a flea market; then he lifted boxes at a T-shirt factory. Now, he works at a plastics manufacturing company. His grown children, born in Uzbekistan, look as American as a Gap commercial. They were naturalized a few years ago. Now it was dad's turn.

"We are proud of him." said Marina Begiyev, 23, of her father.

Wednesday's inductees came from across the west coast of Florida. Most submitted applications six months ago. In many ways, they were already Americans. The longest line outside the ballroom was at the Starbucks kiosk.

The ceremony was all-American. Bonnet-wearing schoolchildren sang America the Beautiful. A moment of silence was offered for the Sept. 11 victims.

Then, the new citizens were asked to look at their green card for the last time.

They raised their right hands and recited the 14-line Oath of Allegiance.

It was over. "Give yourself a big round of applause," said Minton.