An unprecedented wave in citizenship surged Wednesday when 10,000 immigrants took their oaths in Los Angeles in the first of several mass ceremonies that will add a one-month high of 38,000 new citizens to Southern California.
The huge numbers are expected to increase in coming months and by the end of the year, the seven-county region will account for nearly one-third of a record 1 million new citizens nationwide, according to federal immigration officials.
"The Los Angeles district is making history as we speak," said Daniel Kane, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington. "It is the flagship of the country."
A variety of factors are contributing to the skyrocketing numbers. Thousands of immigrants who were granted one-time amnesty in the late 1980s are becoming eligible to apply for citizenship, just as the INS is stepping up naturalization efforts with additional staff and offices nationwide.
Meanwhile, many legal residents say they are seeking citizenship because of anti-immigrant fervor that has gripped the nation in the wake of Proposition 187. Some say they fear proposed congressional action that would slice benefits for legal residents and their children.
"There's a lot of discrimination toward the Mexicans in this country," said Jesus Zamora, 38, a farm worker who drove four hours from Santa Maria to take the oath Wednesday. "If someone talks to me, I now say, 'I'm American.' "
Zamora and other citizens naturalized at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Wednesday celebrated their newly achieved status--waving small flags provided by the INS, hugging their children and pondering which candidate they will vote for in the presidential election.
Albita Vega, a native of Mexico City now living in the San Bernardino County town of Hesperia, cried as she read her naturalization certificate, which she received after handing in her green card.
"Today, I was born," said Vega, 58, who was heading to a family lunch of crab and other delicacies after the ceremony. "I love America."
INS officials urged the new citizens to participate in the political process by voting. Voter registration cards were available inside the convention center. Outside, booths staffed by workers from the Republican and Democratic parties were offering to register the new citizens.
Marie Endaya, a native of Hong Kong who lives in Northridge, wasted no time. After being sworn in, she stepped outside the assembly hall, grabbed a pen and registered to vote with a form that her husband had gotten for her.
"This is a good country, a land of the free," said Endaya, who has lived in the United States as a legal resident since 1959. "I think I should help this country."
Endaya could barely contain her enthusiasm: She came dressed to the event as a sort of human flag--with a red, white and blue outfit and a corsage of red roses, white carnations and blue ribbons.
Her husband, Steve, a Hong Kong native who was naturalized in 1960, was delighted at his wife's decision to become a citizen and quipped, "Now I've got one more Republican vote in the family."
The immigrants at the mass swearing-in typified the diversity of the region. People from more than 110 countries were represented, with those from Mexico accounting for the vast majority.
The immigrants came from the INS' Los Angeles district, which also includes Orange, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino and other counties.
In an oath administered by U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr., the immigrants renounced citizenship in their homelands and pledged loyalty to the United States.
They listened to speeches about freedom and civic responsibility. They watched a slick video that trumpeted the opportunities in this country. And they sat through a rendition of "God Bless America."
Many said they felt inspired.
"It's like a dream come true," said Charles Aggrey, 34, a Glendale resident who arrived in the United States from Uganda 7 1/2 years ago. "It's everything I wanted to do."
Because of the large numbers of participants, the naturalization program had to be conducted in three shifts, and each group filled the room. Mothers with babies, senior citizens in wheelchairs and others sat quietly in rows that stretched the length of a football field.
The early morning crowd included two Marines from Camp Pendleton, who said they wanted to become citizens so they could rise from enlisted personnel to pursue careers as officers. Citizenship, they said, is a prerequisite because officers deal with top secret material.
"I've been in the United States since I was 5 and I knew something was missing," said Sgt. William Leon, 24, a native of El Salvador who grew up in Los Angeles. "Now I feel more a part of everybody in the state."
Three days of ceremonies will follow in the coming week, combining for a total 38,000 new citizens in June, a record for the region.
The INS will surpass that monthly record later this summer when it naturalizes more than 60,000 immigrants in August and September. By the end of the year, 326,800 immigrants will swear their allegiance to the American flag--more than three times last year's total in the region, according to the agency.
INS officials, long accustomed to fighting illegal immigration by beefing up border patrols, took pleasure in organizing the mass induction ceremonies and in seeing increasing numbers of immigrants becoming citizens.
"It's positive for our society," said Richard K. Rogers, director of the Los Angeles district. "The country is made up of people from all walks of life, all racial and ethnic backgrounds. I think it is really good to make sure these people are full participants in our society."