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THE JOURNEY TO BECOME AMERICANS <br> ROAD TO CITIZENSHIP PASSES THROUGH WNY FOR FOREIGN-BORN CHILDREN

Like many best friends, Madeline Elminowski of Buffalo and Elianna Mikulik of Amherst tend to finish each other's sentences.

Just 7 years old, they go to karate class every Wednesday night, play together whenever they can, and when their parents aren't around, they plot their next sleepover. Their mothers say they act more like sisters.

"And we're going to live in the same house when we grow up," Elianna said.

On Friday, Elianna and Madeline got together for another reason, to celebrate once again their common heritage. The two little girls were in the same orphanage -- called a "children's home" -- in China before being adopted and coming to America on March 7, 1998.

Madeline and Elianna joined about 50 other young kids, most decked out in red, white and blue, who came together Friday morning in a ceremony honoring Western New York's role in helping foreign-born children become citizens.

"They're cool," Elianna said of all the babies there. "I'm hungry."

The two little girls were too busy waving their miniature American flags, plotting their next play date and eyeing the big cake on the front table to understand the significance, but standing at the podium was a man who has lived the American dream after being born elsewhere.

At age 15, Eduardo Aguirre fled from Cuba, as an unaccompanied minor, living in a New Orleans orphanage for a while before his parents joined him when he was 17.

He later made his mark as a banker before being named director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"Here I am, an immigrant and in charge of immigration services," Aguirre said. "It says that in the United States, we have no second-class citizens. Whether we're native-born or naturalized, we are full partners in the American journey."

Aguirre came to Buffalo to herald the success of a nationwide program that runs through the local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office.

It's called the Child Citizenship Act Project, and so far this year, it has sent 11,589 citizenship certificates to families of new Americans from 78 different countries.

A process that once took months and months now has been reduced to no more than 45 days, and usually fewer than 30.

Once a child lands in America, the paperwork all runs through the Buffalo office.

Why Buffalo?

"We love international adoptions, and we've developed an expertise here," said Karen M. Eckert, an official with the local office.

At Friday's ceremony, three young children -- Emma Vanessa Acebo from Colombia, Makayla Qiu Joy Barone from China and Maya Rose Schenk from Nepal -- received certificates.

Looking on were children adopted through Baker Victory Services, Asian Connection of Western New York and FANA, from 11 nations: China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, Poland, Guatemala, Sierra Leone, Russia, Kazakhstan and Colombia.

It was the shared experience, the parents coming together with their freshly scrubbed new American children, that made the day so special.

"You can share your adoption stories with other families," said Emma's mother, Michele Acebo of Ontario, N.Y.

"And you don't have to explain what it means to fall in love with a child that's not biologically yours."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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