City Has Become Newest Ellis Island

As number of immigrants grows, many feel the INS should do more to promote citizenship. LOS ANGELES

BY 8:30 a.m., the 2,000 people from 110 countries about to become United States citizens are in their vinyl seats, clutching American flags and waving to friends in the back of the room. Up front, a clerk gives instructions on the ceremony: ``Also, if you're wearing a hat, could you take it off. This is a courtroom.''

Nowhere is the evidence more dramatic that this city has become the nation's premier portal for immigration than Petri Hall and Room B at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

There, several times a year, in rooms large enough to hold a Shriners' convention, immigrants from dozens of countries formally become US citizens.

Naturalization ceremonies are routinely held in cities and hamlets across the land. But nowhere is the ritual quite like it is in Los Angeles, the country's premier melting pot, the new Ellis Island, America's first ``third-world city.''

On two recent days alone, 7,500 people became new citizens here. More than one-fourth of the people officially inducted into the American family each year are processed in Los Angeles. While some cities occasionally hold special ceremonies in which several hundred immigrants are sworn in, here it is rare when less than 1,500 people are naturalized at one time.

``We naturalize more people than anywhere else,'' says Dan Hesse of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Los Angeles.

The volume and makeup of the new citizens tells a lot about the changing face of southern California - and, by extension, America.

Punctually at 9 a.m., US District Court Judge Manuel Real, silver-thatched and robed in black, enters the hall. An INS official announces there are 2,000 candidates for citizenship. The judge asks them all to rise, raise their right hand, and repeat after him: ``I hereby renounce all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or...''

In the early 1980s, some 20,000 immigrants were being naturalized here each year. The number now surpasses 60,000 annually, and when aliens legalized under the amnesty provision of the new immigration law become eligible for citizenship in the early 1990s, the figures will jump dramatically.

By comparison, in New York, the nation's No. 2 citizen producer, 39,500 residents were naturalized last year. In Miami, about 18,000 new Americans are sworn in annually.

Nationwide, the number of people becoming citizens continues to fluctuate. After rising steadily in the 1980s to a peak of 281,000 in 1986, the rate has slowed the past couple of years.

Some groups think the US government should do more to promote citizenship. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEAO) estimates 7 million people are eligible for citizenship - have five years of legal permanent residence, no felonies, and could complete English and civics tests - but haven't applied.

``The INS is not out there beating the drum on citizenship,'' says Harry Pachon, NALEAO executive director.

One measure working its way through Congress would give the INS $1 million to encourage citizenship. Another seeks to streamline the naturalization process by allowing the INS and other authorities, not just the courts, to administer the oath of citizenship.

Yet some immigration specialists argue that becoming a citizen is a solemn step and that the oath should be administered only by a judge. Nor is everyone enamored with the idea of the government promoting naturalization.

``It has always been the government's position that becoming a citizen should be purely voluntarily,'' says Duke Austin with the INS in Washington.

Judge Real lectures the new Americans on the duties of citizenship (it is ``not a classroom subject to be studied and forgotten'') as well as on its privileges (today you receive ``the greatest expression of our freedom. It is the right to vote.''). He leads them in the Pledge of Allegiance. The National Anthem is sung. The citizens wave their tiny American flags. There are moist eyes throughout the room.

The ethnic makeup of America's newest citizens is showing subtle shifts. Mexicans, historically among the least likely immigrants to naturalize, are now becoming citizens in greater numbers.

Some 28,000 Mexicans were naturalized in 1986 - double the number in 1984, though the numbers have trailed off slightly since then. In Los Angeles, they now account for more new citizens than any other ethnic group. Three years ago they ranked sixth.

Analysts say the rise reflects the overcoming of traditional fears Latinos have had about naturalizing: fear of losing their identity, fealty to homeland, nervousness about the INS. It is also easier to petition to have relatives come to the US once you are a citizen.

Fernando Salcedo has lived here legally for 19 years. He just recently decided to become a US citizen, however, after someone convinced him of the importance of voting and the other perquisites of citizenship.

``I have worked hard and saved money and paid taxes,'' says the slight Mexican. ``I have done everything right. I don't want to go back to Mexico.''

As more immigrants from the Soviet Union have settled here in recent years, they have made up a growing share of Los Angeles's new citizens. Others becoming new Americans in prodigious numbers here include: Vietnamese (No. 2), Filipinos (3), Koreans (4), and Chinese (5).

The group watches a videotape showing American icons - black-earthed Iowa farms, Mt. Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial - while country singer Lee Greenwood croons a patriotic air. Moments later, the citizens emerge into the bright light of a Los Angeles morning - and a new homeland. ``It feels great,'' says Linh Dang from Vietnam. Cuban Ramon Diaz, barrel-chested and wearing a Peterbuilt'' cap, exults, too. ``This is my country now,'' he says. ``... I hope to be here the rest of my life.''

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