KENTWOOD, Mich. — With his hand on his heart, for the first time on Monday, Joe Njenga recited the Pledge of Allegiance as a citizen of the United States.
Njenga, who emigrated from Kenya with his wife, was one of 80 immigrants from 34 different countries who were sworn in during a naturalization ceremony at the Kentwood Public Library on Monday afternoon.
“It’s a dream come true," he said. "America represents the great. It’s always been to my wife and I, we came here as students."
The dream realized for many of the immigrants sworn in Monday represents the culmination of, in some cases, years of waiting and rigorous civics testing to become a naturalized citizen.
“I have a family over here, I’m married to an American and I’ve been over here now for 13 years," said Richard Barber, who emigrated from the United Kingdom.
Barber said he applied for U.S. citizenship more than one year ago to make his life "feel more permanent" and above all, to vote.
Describing himself as 'politically minded,' Barber said he felt recent comments made by presidential candidates about immigration serve to do nothing more than "fire people up and makes good headlines.”
“I think it’s good to have the debate and get it out there," he said. "But, whether I think it’s a major issue right now that needs to be discussed, I question that.”
The issue of immigration reform remains one of the top priorities among voters going into the 2016 presidential election, according to the latest poll numbers from CNN/ORC this month.
GOP contender and billionaire business mogul Donald Trump in recent appearances and debates continues to trumpet his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border to secure the country. Meanwhile, Chris Christie recently came under fire for suggesting, if elected president, he'd track undocumented immigrants like FedEx packages.
Njenga said he understands the different perspectives on immigration and especially about those who come to the country illegally, but said his personal experiences influence his position.
“Knowing what I know, where I’ve gone and where we came from, you have to go through the process to understand and they (presidential candidates) need to talk to the people who’ve gone through it," he said.
Congressman Bill Huizenga, R-Michigan, whose district includes Kentwood, attended Monday's ceremony.
Huizenga's own wife emigrated from Canada several years ago. While disagreeing with President Obama's executive action taken on immigration, he told FOX 17 he absolutely believes the system needs to be reformed.
"Our system is broken and it’s very difficult to navigate, it’s very expensive to go through it," he said. "It shouldn’t be just easy to become a United States citizen, but we do have to be smarter about it."
Acknowledging how divisive the issue has become on the presidential campaign trail, he also said it's one that can't be ignored just because it's contentious.
"There’s so much focus on those who’ve overstayed visas and who’ve gotten here without going through the proper channels that it’s made it very difficult for those who did use the proper channels," he said. "We’ve got to make sure we separate those out."