In a recent ceremony in Tucson, more than 1,000 people from around the globe took the oath that transformed them into US citizens.
It was the city's largest such event to date, paralleling many similarly crowded initiations across the nation. Chicago recently held record-breaking, back-to-back ceremonies for 10,000 new Americans; in the New York area, roughly 6,000 immigrants become citizens every week, five times as many as a year ago.
As the United States prepares to celebrate the Fourth of July, it is clear the country continues to draw like a magnet those who seek a new and better life, often at considerable personal sacrifice. And on the surface, it has been a banner year for new citizens.
By October, officials expect roughly 1 million immigrants to have completed background checks, taken citizenship tests, and sworn loyalty to their new country - all as part of an effort to reduce a massive backlog generated by the immigration amnesty offered in 1986.
Their formal welcome is always rendered in glowing terms. "This nation needs your abilities, your energies, and your dreams," US Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York said recently.
But it belies the agitated debate over immigration, and begs the question of whether the tumult is typical of a country in the midst of a near-record wave of immigration, or whether America indeed is slamming the door to the outside world.
About 800,000 legal immigrants come to this country each year. The most recent influx of immigrants has contributed to the appeal of Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan and his message of closing America's doors. But the strains they create in the social fabric are nothing new, according to Roseanne Sonchik, director of the Phoenix office of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, and herself a second-generation American.
"It's growing pains for America, " she says. "The Irish weren't accepted, the Italians weren't accepted, the Germans weren't. Every wave goes through the acceptance period, and the assimilation at times is difficult."
Indeed, immigrants have borne the brunt of Americans' frustration in the face of economic uncertainty brought about by layoffs and downsizings.
California put the issue front and center in 1994, when voters approved Proposition 187, which sought to eliminate social services, public schooling, and medical care for illegal immigrants. Many legal immigrants felt it created an atmosphere of hostility toward them.
Last year, the bipartisan congressional Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by the late Barbara Jordan, voiced a need for change in the system, affirming the value of legal immigration but recommending reducing by one-third the annual average of incoming aliens.
And this year, Congress took up legislation introduced by Sen. Alan Simpson (R) Wyoming and Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas that would reduce legal immigration. The two bills have been passed by both houses and await reconciliation.
Those opposed to curbs on immigration, meanwhile, argue that the system already is adequately controlled and regulated. There are fewer immigrants now than at the turn of the century: 720,000 in 1995, compared with 1.3 million in 1907.
And according to the 1990 census, the number of foreign-born Americans was 7.9 percent of the population, lower than at most times since 1850.
Gregory Walther, an attorney in San Francisco, also says the current political environment "is based on a lack of understanding of the contributions that immigrants have made.'"
Many add that America would be denying itself the cultural diversity that has made it a great nation - even if accommodating newcomers often causes tension as Americans try to balance acceptance of new traditions with a vague notion of what it means to "be American."
For Angela Hsu of Atlanta, a lawyer and naturalized American who emigrated from Taiwan as a child, balancing the two is a challenge. But, she says, "People are seeing that there needs to be both - we have to recognize that we are all Americans, but it's really important also to keep in touch with your culture."
IMMIGRATION THEN ...
More than 1 million immigrants entered the United States in the peak year of a massive wave of immigration. More than 14 million people came to America between 1901 and 1920.
Nine out of 10 new immigrants came from Europe or Canada in the first 20 years of the century.
Their destinations in the US
Once in the United States, most immigrants headed for the urban industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest such as Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. One-third of all immigrants who came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 remained in New York City.
Number of foreign-born Americans
At the turn of the century, about 15 percent of the US population was born in a foreign country.
... AND NOW
Some 800,000 immigrants came to America as part of the century's second major wave of immigration. Since 1981, more than 13 million newcomers have arrived in the United States.
Today, Asians and Latinos make up about three-quarters of all US immigrants. Only about 15 percent of immigrants come from Europe and Canada.
Their destinations in the US
California, New York, Florida, and Texas have the largest immigration populations in the country. Sixty-one percent of Latinos live in Florida, Texas, and California, while 56 percent of Asians live in California, New York, and Hawaii.
Number of foreign-born Americans
About 9 percent of the US population today was not born in America.
1924 National Origins Act
The culmination of increasingly restrictive legislation, the act formalized strict quotas on all immigrants and all but barred immigration from non-European countries.
1965 Immigration Act
This legislation abolished quotas based on national origin, opening the way for the century's second big wave of immigration.
1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act
The act tried to curb the employment of undocumented workers. More than 2 million illegal immigrants were granted amnesty.
1990 Immigration Act
This modification of the 1965 act increased the total level of immigration, which is based mainly on family reunification but also on skills needed for employment.
*Sources: INS, American Demographics, Ellis Island.
QUESTIONS FROM IMMIGRATION TEST
Citizenship applicants must correctly answer 12 of 20 questions such as these samples to be exempt from oral questioning.
1. Can you name the 13 original states?
2. Who said, "Give me liberty or give me death?"
3. How many changes or amendments are there to the Constitution?
4. Name one right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
5. What is the Bill of Rights?
6. Name one amendment which guarantees or addresses voting rights.
7. Who has the power to declare war?
8. Who becomes the president of the United States if the president and the vice president should die?
9. Who is the chief justice of the Supreme Court?
10. Which countries were our principal allies during World War II?
(1) Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Rhode Island, Maryland, and South Carolina; (2) Patrick Henry; (3) 26; (4) Freedom of: speech, press, religion, peaceable assembly, and requesting change of the government; (5) The first 10 amendments to the Constitution; (6) 15th, 19th, 24th, 26th; (7) The Congress; (8) Speaker of the House of Representatives; (9) William Rehnquist; (10) Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Russia, China