KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- As a child growing up in the United States, James McKamey recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school.
But when McKamey, 48, said the words on Feb. 18, they held more meaning than they ever had before. That day, when the U.S. Marine Corps veteran was sworn in as an American citizen, marked the end of a long journey -- which included McKamey almost being deported to the Phillipines, where he had been born.
"To get that letter saying you're about to be sworn in, it's like a dream," McKamey said at his home in West Knoxville, Tenn., last week. "You've been waiting so long. There are so many times that I cried. I mean the emotions ... it's 43 years."
McKamey came to the United States with his mother, sister and stepfather when he was 5 years old. His mother became a citizen when he was a child, but his and his sister's names were left off the necessary paperwork that would have also allowed them to be naturalized.
"At 5 years old you don't go, excuse me, is the proper paperwork filled out?" said McKamey's wife, Sherri. "There are so many kids that are in that situation that are in this country. And you can't control that."
The omission wouldn't come to light until McKamey was an adult. He had started a family and was the father of five daughters. He served as a Marine for several years before being honorably discharged and had been successful in his job in sales. But he also had served time on an attempted armed robbery charge when he was 26.
Then in 1995, McKamey won a trip to Spain through his job. He applied for a passport and received a letter telling him he was not an American citizen and needed to contact immigration officials.
He informed his sister that if he wasn't a citizen, she probably wasn't either, and they both began the process to become citizens. His sister completed the process in about six months, but McKamey began getting nervous when he hadn't heard back about when he would be sworn in.
Then came the letter, McKamey said, that turned his life upside down.
The letter said he was going to be deported because he had a felony conviction on his record. When he was 26 years old, McKamey had pleaded guilty to a 1988 attempted armed robbery in Bartow County, Ga., in exchange for one year of incarceration, with credit for time served and the remaining to be probationary.
McKamey said he hired attorneys to help him with the immigration case.
"During that time, I was letting these lawyers work on my case, because if I was deported, I wouldn't be eligible to come back into the country for like 10 years," he said. "I didn't want to lose that time with my kids. If I had just committed a misdemeanor, I would have never been going through this."
McKamey was at his low point. He lost his job and put his savings into the case. He began attending church and gave his life to Jesus Christ, he said. In November 2004, McKamey was arrested and detained by immigration agents and transported to the Blount County Detention Facility in Maryville, Tenn.
While McKamey was locked up, Knoxville attorney Stephen Ross Johnson -- who had heard about the case from a friend seeking help for him -- went to see McKamey.
"Immigration (legal work) is the furthest away from what I do ... but I'm a trial lawyer and what I do is figure out what the law is," Johnson said. "The more I learned, the unfairness really stuck with me. James' case was unusual. His background and his circumstances were unusual. I just thought it was wrong."
Johnson took McKamey's case, and represented him for free. He filed a motion to reopen his deportation case and won. That allowed him to be eligible for bond and he was released just days before Christmas 2004.
Johnson continued to work on the case and several years later McKamey's deportation charges were dismissed, making him a legal resident again. But despite the dismissal, McKamey still couldn't apply for his citizenship because of the felony conviction.
That's when McKamey contacted Sen. Bob Corker's office to see if they could help. Staffers told McKamey they would do what they could. After eight months, they told him he could take the civics test again. It's not clear how Corker's office intervened or managed to win McKamey the right to apply for citizenship again.
"Some how, some way, I qualified to take the test over and resubmit because I've kept my nose clean all these years," McKamey said.
On Feb. 18, McKamey was one of 165 people from 59 countries who were naturalized as citizens. McKamey said that as he waited for his name to be called he thought about how many people had helped him during his journey.
"Sitting there was a humbling deal. There's nothing that exceeds going from a point where that country is about to be snatched away from you. You'll never be able to call it your own, even though you served for it," he said.
Lydia X. McCoy is a reporter for The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee.