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For Six Immigrants, the Constitution Is More Than a Document

September 13, 1987|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

Arthur Carter spent four years toiling in the rice fields of Cambodia, where freedom was a forgotten luxury.

Hauled away from his small town by communist invaders, he was part of a labor crew living in tents and tattered clothing, working from dawn till night in the rain and the scorching sun.

He saw the complainers being dragged away to be killed. He remembers watching one field worker desperately plead for his life as marshals clubbed him and slit his throat. "You cannot speak something wrong," Carter said. "My family's the lucky ones, because nobody got killed."

Seven years later, Carter and his family quietly operate the Good Time doughnut shop, a tiny brick establishment whose name bears special meaning in the vast commercial sprawl of Los Angeles. These are indeed good times for the 12 Cambodian refugees, who, like thousands of other United States immigrants, are proudly seeking the new title, U.S. citizens.

With his mother, father, brothers and sisters, the 33-year-old Carter is living an American dream. He has discarded his old name, Wu Be, and now calls himself after the top-ranking American at the time of his arrival--former President Jimmy Carter. He is the first in his family to take citizenship classes, to pass the federal exam and to be sworn in as a citizen. He has also earned a trade-school degree in gemology.

Pouring coffee and tending racks of doughnuts, Carter envisions a day when he will deal in diamonds and precious stones, acutely aware of the rights and opportunities guaranteed him by the U.S. Constitution.

"Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of (the) press--that's very important," Carter said. "Over here, we can say what we want if we think it is right, and it doesn't hurt anybody. That's very important."

Carter is far from alone in his views or his background. The number of immigrants sworn in as U.S. citizens last year exceeded 100,000 in Los Angeles and surrounding urban areas--more than 40% of the total number nationwide, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The numbers for Los Angeles have more than doubled in the last five years.

"This is it--this is the new Ellis Island," immigration official William Carroll said.

For the most part, the newcomers express an appreciation for American freedoms far beyond what they are taught in citizenship classes. Uprooted from their homes, often in lands of squalor or political unrest, they talk gratefully and knowledgeably about the constitutional rights they now hold. Often, their English is broken--but their hearts and spirits are not.

Uma Dave, 40: She was born in Bombay, India, into a society where men dominate--and where, in many of the smaller villages, women still cover their faces and walk several paces behind their husbands.

"In some parts of India they don't even educate girls," Dave said. "Parents decide who (their daughters) will marry. I have seen people suffering . . . if they don't have a happy marriage. Divorce is not possible. It's too much frustration for the woman. It's torture."

She and her husband, Khiten, did not share the traditional Indian view of the woman's role, which is one reason they were attracted to the United States, Dave said. In 1969, they visited Dave's sister, a doctor, who was here on a work visa. For years afterward, she said, they continued to hear her sister's glowing reports on life in this country. Finally, she said, in 1984, they packed up their son and belongings and moved here permanently, settling in Downey.

Although India is a democratic country, the freedoms under law mean little there, she said. If you speak out on an issue, "nobody will put you in jail," Dave said. "But it won't come out . . . in the newspapers or on TV. Your opinion is not really wanted."

Steve Orozco, 37: Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, he was abandoned by his father and reared in poverty by his mother and older sister. "We were so poor," he said, "we were sometimes unable to get shoes, even if we really needed them. My mother wasn't even able to keep me in school."

Seeking a new start, his mother brought the family to the United States in 1967. They settled in Huntington Park. His mother worked as a maid. Orozco got a part-time job in a bakery, earning $1.25 a day--"enough to go to a movie," he said.

But it was a start toward modest success: Now a carpet installer, he now owns a van, a pickup and a home in Los Angeles for his wife and two children.

Last year, as city officials pressed ahead with plans for a huge trash-incineration project near his neighborhood, Orozco joined the political process, writing letters to state representatives. "A lot of people started to write letters," he said. "They stopped the project."

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