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New Citizens Savor Their Triumph : Immigration: Forty-eight hours after the election, 3,500 immigrants are sworn in at an emotional ceremony in Los Angeles.

November 11, 1994|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 3,500 begin arriving two hours early for the 1 p.m. ceremony that, with a few words, will turn the concrete floor of the Los Angeles Convention Center into a federal court and, with a few more words, turn them into U.S. citizens.

Under an electric sign that last week advertised a meeting of the National Food Processors Assn. and now says, "Welcome Citizens," they come for the fourth swearing-in ceremony over two days, designed to naturalize 14,000 people in all. And though these have become monthly events in Los Angeles, this citizenship marathon comes just 48 hours after an election in which immigration was a lightning-rod issue, leading some to complain that the welcome mat had been yanked from California's front door.

For the most part, however, the talk is not of politics. The hall is alive with stories about the personal struggles that have faced immigrants for generations.

Seated near the back of the hall, Johnny Jacman, 19, says his family emigrated from Israel to Northridge for a better life and of how he will use his citizenship "to become a policeman."

A row behind, a small American flag sticking out of his breast pocket, is Amin Basaria, 31, of Torrance by way of Pakistan, who came here as a student 14 years ago, "became illegal after I finished," and on this day says, "I finally feel free."

Next to him, in a suit and tie, is Philip Wi, 52, of Pasadena, a contractor who came from Korea 17 years ago.

The citizens-to-be are from 120 countries.

Each is given a packet containing, among other things, a voter registration form. Collecting the completed forms at one table is David Selayadia of the registrar's office, who was surprised to find one of his cousins, originally from Mexico, among those being sworn in Thursday. Selayadia's immediate family has been here for years, living in Boyle Heights.

"My father fought in World War II, my brother in Korea and another in Vietnam," he said.

The front row is set aside for the old and disabled.

In a wheelchair, a scarf covering her head, is Kim Anh Duong, 75, who is recovering from a stroke. She and her husband moved from Vietnam after the war, and she is the only one in the family still without citizenship, says her son, a computer worker from San Gabriel. "She's waiting for 15 years now," he says, noting that the citizenship test was hard for a woman whose English remains shaky. But after her stroke, "they only asked her a couple of questions, that's all," he confides.

Two seats away, Juan Esparaza, 33, clutches his papers in hands twisted from cerebral palsy. Here from Mexico 19 years, the San Bernardino resident is in a black tuxedo, with a light purple shirt, that he wore only once before. Hearing of the old woman's struggles, he volunteers his own: fighting the disease, learning a second language, graduating from high school and looking to further his studies, in mathematics or computers.

"I very proud," he says, holding his flag, just as the loudspeaker commands, "All rise."

U.S. District Judge Ronald Lew takes the stage, pounds the gavel and court is in session.

"Your honor, the government is presenting . . . 3,500 candidates for citizenship," an INS official says.

Judge Lew, though, also has a story, of how his own parents came from a Chinese farming village in the 1920s and bore nine children, and how his father asked him to become a lawyer for the sake of the family. He didn't really want to, but "I was obedient," the 53-year-old judge says.

Then he chokes up, recalling how the parents he loved "so much" never lived to see him succeed like this, leading thousands through the ceremony his own father went through back in 1951.

The ceremony has remained much the same, all the candidates raising their right hands and pledging to fight "all enemies, foreign and domestic."

Then Lew says, "Congratulations, you are now the new citizens of this country."

And he reminds the throng, "This country was only great because it was immigrants that made it strong," drawing the biggest cheers of the afternoon.

"Now of late we've had some problems," he adds, a clear reference to the furor over Proposition 187. "Let's try to put that aside.

". . . You're the citizens of the country now. . . . Burn it into your hearts and your minds."

And so they do, with a Pledge of Allegiance and "The Star-Spangled Banner," then the gavel comes down again and the new citizens of the United States are told, "this honorable court is now adjourned."

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