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NAPA - Ulises Torres was 17 when he left his family in Mexico for a new life in the United States, paying $3,500 for people to drive him across the border.

“You get here, and you don’t know what to do,” he said, describing the experience as a bad dream. “You’re with family, but not the family you grew up with.”

Fourteen years later, the 31-year-old Rohnert Park man officially became an American citizen Thursday at the first naturalization ceremony held in the city of Napa. His wife and the couple’s 5-year-old daughter cheered him on.

“I’m starting another chapter in my life,” an emotional Torres said, a small American flag tucked in the pocket of his black dress shirt.

Torres was among 21 immigrants, most of them residing in Sonoma County, who participated in the ceremony at the Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center. Hundreds of family members and other well-wishers attended the event, which included a local high school choir performing the national anthem and a videotaped greeting from President Barack Obama.

Also framing the ceremony was the ongoing national debate over immigration, including the status of millions of undocumented immigrants. The issue is front and center in the U.S. presidential campaign, with Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the Republican nomination, calling for a wall to be erected along the U.S.-Mexico border and for Muslims to be prevented from entering the country.

Several of the newly minted American citizens Thursday cited concerns with the tone and direction of the immigration debate among the reasons they sought citizenship, which will allow them to vote in elections. The group hailed from 12 different nations.

“Being here today is an example of how immigration can work,” said Eseroma Puamau, who emigrated from Fiji to Santa Rosa in 2010. “Instead of building walls, we should be building bridges.”

Puamau is a research and development chemist who obtained a special immigration visa by lottery. He and his wife, Salote Soqo, who also became an American citizen Thursday, are moving to Boston, where Soqo is taking a job with a Unitarian Universalist organization.

Torres, who works as a drywall finisher, said immigration laws are “very tough” and “always changing,” and that he feared that even a minor misstep in his personal life would prevent him from becoming a citizen, prompting him to act now.

He and his American wife, Arileidy Torres, a radiology student at Santa Rosa Junior College, purchased their first home in Rohnert Park last month.

Torres was eligible for naturalization because of the length of time he has lived in the United States and because is married to an American citizen.

He volunteered that he has no criminal record. Immigration officials take such information into account when deciding whether to grant someone citizenship. Among the requirements of an applicant is that he or she be a person of “good moral character.”

Some, however, argue illegal immigrants should never be allowed to step on the path to U.S. citizenship, and that such people should return to their native lands or be prevented from entering the country in the first place.

Given the political climate, Santa Rosa resident Heriberto “Eddie” Herrera thought it was the right time to become a citizen after living in the United States for nearly three decades.

“I was like, ‘Hey, maybe I should become a U.S. citizen, to play it safe,’ ” said Herrera, who is a driver for Fed Ex.

Many immigrants, illegal or otherwise, are leery of the naturalization process, which takes on average six months and includes tests in American civics and English proficiency. Federal officials are trying to speed up and “demystify” that process, said John Kramar, the director of the San Francisco and San Jose district of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“It’s really not scary at all,” he said. “When people are ready to do it, they should step forward.”

The federal agency had never held a naturalization ceremony in Napa prior to Thursday’s event, which coincided with the Cesar Chavez holiday. Most new American citizens from the North Bay take the allegiance oath at ceremonies in Oakland. Last year, Kramar’s office administered the oath to 35,000 people. Nationwide, the numbers hovered around 700,000.

The Napa Valley Community Foundation, which helped coordinate Thursday’s ceremony, launched a citizenship project in 2012 on the heels of a study on the economic and fiscal impacts of immigration in Napa County. Currently, only 30 percent of the county’s foreign-born population have become citizens, which is below the statewide figure of 37 percent.

In his official remarks, Terence Mulligan, the community foundation’s president, noted the “rancorous” and “unproductive” immigration debate occurring on the national stage.

He said afterward that the citizenship project demonstrates that “locally we can still work together, even if our national political life seems stuck in a regrettable way.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.