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JAMES RICCI

For New Citizens, It's Not the Party, It's the Drive That Got Them There

October 01, 2000|JAMES RICCI

The traffic-control officer waved me away when I tried to pull into the drive leading to the Quiet Cannon restaurant at the Montebello Golf Course. "You have to wait 10 minutes till we empty out the other people," he said.

It was 10 a.m., and the next ceremony wasn't scheduled until 11. Already, the traffic on the streets around the golf course had coagulated. A long queue of people wound around the curving sidewalk that rises to the hilltop banquet hall.

The problem was that the participants in the 9 a.m. ceremony, 900 of them, plus friends and family, hadn't yet departed. Nine hundred at the 9 o'clock. Nine hundred scheduled for the 11 o'clock. Nine hundred more for a third ceremony to take place at 1 p.m.

In time, as the 9 o'clockers made their way down the hill, the 11 o'clockers were allowed onto the premises. They shuffled up to a second-story veranda, where at a long line of tables, immigration workers checked their IDs. Then the participants handed over their green cards. In return, each received an envelope with a congratulatory letter from Bill Clinton and a small plastic American flag.

The vast banquet hall filled quickly, the participants seated separately from their guests. At last, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Harry Pregerson stood before them. He bade them stand and raise their right hands. Then he led them, short phrase by short phrase, through the Oath of Allegiance, by which they swore to "renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty," so help them God.

"That's it," Pregerson said. "You're all citizens now."

For 35 seconds, the 900 cheered and waved their little flags. They were 398 Mexicans, five Romanians, 67 Iranians, two Tongans, 79 Salvadorans, 10 Canadians and many, many others. They were a heavy, bearded man in a black Lakers T-shirt, a Buddhist monk in a tan robe and white leggings, a slender, eager-eyed young woman in a clinging blue dress, a tiny elderly woman in a flowery smock.

After a short inspirational video (images of astronauts on the moon, fighter planes, farms, Bruce Jenner, Mt. Rushmore, the Hollywood sign), they were summoned to the tables outside again, where they received their certificates of naturalization. And that was that.

I'd expected something a little more dramatic, a tableau of radiant faces flowing with copious tears. We native-born Americans have always expected the foreign-born we accept among us to show a lot of gratitude (more, in fact, than we customarily do).

It's understandable, however, why the ceremony didn't provoke emotional outbursts. For one thing, it's a legal proceeding; the venue is transformed for the occasion into a federal courtroom. For another, mass citizenship swearings-in are commonplace in the Los Angeles area.

More than 20% of the 4.7 million citizens naturalized in the United States since 1990 have been sworn in here. The ceremonies at Montebello are intimate affairs compared to those held at the L.A. Convention Center, where 6,000 people are typically sworn in at each of two ceremonies in a single day. No other district of the Immigration and Naturalization Service comes close to L.A. in this regard. Over the last year, the L.A. district completed nearly 214,000 citizenship applications. In second place was New York, with about 145,000.

After the Montebello ceremony, I chatted up some of the newly certified.

Monzer Mohammad Kozzan, a 45-year-old East Jerusalem-born Palestinian who works as an electronics technician and lives in Garden Grove, held his certificate up and said, "With this document I now can go all over the world. It's something you can't really appreciate until you've been all over the world without it."

Margarita Magana of Santa Ana, a 33-year-old homemaker born in Guadalajara, said that compared to Mexico, "here you have more liberty as a woman."

Phuoc Tran, a 41-year-old Vietnamese equipment mechanic who lives in Reseda, announced that with his new citizenship he was changing his first name to Kelvin. "I work for an American company," he said, "and whenever they call me, they say, 'Phuoc! Phuoc!' --and you know what word that sounds like in American." He smiled, shook my hand goodbye and walked away into his new American future.

Having sprung from three grandparents who underwent the naturalization rite, I've had plenty of occasion to ponder the dynamic of people's exchanging their native country for this one.

These people, I think, must by definition have been unlike their compatriots back home. They were willing to turn their backs on the past, which frequently preoccupies old cultures, and were unimpressed by a present that was comfortingly familiar, or were determined not to be ground under by one that was repressive. What aroused them was the notion of a future, unknowable but inevitably transformative.

Perhaps the swearings-in shouldn't be that big a deal in any case. These people, their backs to the bygone, their noses pointed straight ahead, were Americans before they even got here.

*

James Ricci's e-mail address is james.ricci@latimes.com

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