In yet another sign that Los Angeles is the Ellis Island of the '80s, more than 38,000 immigrants are becoming U.S. citizens this week and next during a marathon series of twice-a-day naturalization ceremonies unequalled in American history.
By the time the 12th ceremony is finished on Nov. 22, a total of 38,648 people--the equivalent of the population of Rancho Palos Verdes or San Luis Obispo--will have been naturalized. The total represents nearly one-sixth of all naturalizations in the United States this year.
The first of the emotion-filled, half-hour ceremonies took place Wednesday morning at the Los Angeles Convention Center when 3,200 people from 106 countries took the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time under the auspices of U.S. District Judge Albert L. Stephens Jr.
Most of the new citizens are from the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, Korea and China, according to Ernest E. Gustafson, district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. They are residents of Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
One of the new citizens, Bergouhi Zomjian of Lebanon, was sworn in on an emergency basis when she went into labor shortly before the second ceremony began Wednesday afternoon.
Los Angeles became the naturalization capital of the United States for the first time in 1983, when it surpassed New York City by naturalizing nearly one-fifth of all new U.S. citizens. This year, according to Gustafson, the Los Angeles area will have naturalized a total of 75,000--or a third of all new U.S. citizens.
The ceremonies are also a milestone for the Los Angeles INS office, which only two years ago held the dubious honor of maintaining the biggest backlog of naturalization cases in the country.
In September, 1983, a legal resident who applied for citizenship had to wait nearly 2 1/2 years to even be interviewed by an immigration officer. Los Angeles had such a bad
reputation for its naturalization backlog that the current drive to cut the jam has been dubbed "Operation Albatross" by INS officers. The operation was started in February, 1984.
Today the wait is about two months.
"But now our goal," Gustafson said, "(is that) you can come in for an interview appointment in the morning and be naturalized that same afternoon."
To qualify for naturalization, federal law requires that new citizens must be legal residents of the United States for at least five years. They must have no significant criminal history, be considered of good moral character by INS examiners, and pass examinations on their knowledge of U.S. civics and English.
Ironically, the INS is making more work for itself with every naturalization, because every new citizen has a right to apply for the immigration to the United States of family members living abroad. Gustafson estimated that about half of all new citizens will file such applications and that each of those want to bring in two relatives.
In 1980, according to Kevin McCarthy, senior demographer at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, 22.3% of Los Angeles County residents were foreign-born.
"That essentially doubled since 1970, when it was 11%," he said, "And I would suspect it is 25% today."