An Oath of Allegiance Begins Her New Life : Recently Sworn-In Citizen Living in County Says United States Is ‘Best Country to Be in’

Times Staff Writer

Two minutes in front of a U.S. District judge erased a lifetime of hardship, fear and political persecution for Thuan Nguyen, 28, a Vietnamese refugee now living in Yorba Linda.

Standing in a hall the size of a football field at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Nguyen raised her trembling right hand and repeated the oath of allegiance to the United States: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince . . . . “

The slight young woman stumbled over the more difficult words, and toward the end of the long pledge, her soft voice almost failed. “I take this obligation freely . . . , “ she whispered, “so help me God.”


Nguyen left Yorba Linda at 6 a.m. last Friday to stand in line with an estimated 3,900 other petitioners from around the world to be sworn in as American citizens. By 8 a.m., the line wound halfway around the Convention Center, reached down a flight of stairs and extended for a block along Pico Boulevard.

In six days of back-to-back ceremonies, Nguyen and 38,563 other immigrants became American citizens in the largest mass naturalization in U.S. history. Like Southern California itself, the 12 ceremonies were marked by moments of deep sentiment, dignity and elements of Hollywood hoopla.

To become citizens, immigrants must have been legal residents of the United States for five years. They must file petitions for citizenship, be interviewed by officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and demonstrate their knowledge of American history and government and their ability to speak English. After these requirements are fulfilled, citizenship is conferred through a swearing-in ceremony.

As she stood in line beneath the slate-gray sky, Nguyen explained why she wanted to be an American: “I want to be here. It’s the best country to be in. Freedom. You can do whatever you want. In my country, it is hard.”

Nguyen escaped Vietnam in 1979 in a small boat with nearly 400 others fleeing their war-torn country for a Thai refugee camp. “But when we get to Thailand,” Nguyen said, “they didn’t want us, so they kept us in the ocean for three days on the boat. A lot of people hungry. One woman die. I stay in the boat because I don’t know how to swim. I thought I would die in the boat, too.”

Later that year, Nguyen immigrated to the United States with a cousin and a nephew. A brother and his wife had died, and her parents had been jailed--all casualties of the war. But on Friday, Nguyen was looking ahead to a new life, and as the swearing-in ceremony ended, she turned and grinned.


“I am proud to be American citizen,” she said. “This is a freedom country.”

Many Moved to Tears

Many of the recent immigrants, moved by the day’s import in their lives, wiped away tears. But a five-minute country and western video shown to the new citizens--featuring Lee Greenwood, aboard a tractor, crooning that he’s “proud to be an American”--contrasted sharply with the crowd’s quiet demeanor.

Speaking from a podium beneath an enormous American flag, Ernest Gustafson, Los Angeles district director of the INS, told the groups of flag-toting citizens: “You’re part of history. You’re part of America. Wave those flags. Those are the most beautiful three colors you’ll ever see.”

Gustafson was right about the participants’ historical significance. According to Duke Austin, an INS spokesman in Washington: “I don’t know of any other time in six days when we did about 40,000 (naturalizations) in one location” since the U.S. government began naturalizing citizens in 1907.

“For a long time, we didn’t have naturalization in this country,” Austin said in a telephone interview. “You just came here and were a citizen. Just being here was sufficient.” But between 1907 and 1983, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 11,494,950 petitions for naturalization were filed, Austin said.

Los Angeles and Florida are now the two busiest naturalization centers. In fact, until the Convention Center ceremonies--held from Nov. 13 through 22--Florida had the record for the largest group of immigrants sworn in at once, with a ceremony last year that naturalized 15,000 in Miami’s Orange Bowl, Austin said.

118 Countries Represented

The candidates for citizenship in the Los Angeles ceremonies this month are residents of Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and Ventura counties. According to immigration officials, there are natives of 118 countries.


The top five countries represented are Vietnam, 6,798 candidates; Mexico, 5,555; Philippines, 5,395; Korea, 2,792, and mainland China, 1,767. In addition, there are 1,070 from the U.S.S.R. and 856 from Cuba.

As a young girl growing up in Michoacan--a tiny rural town in the Mexican state of the same name--Maria Ortega and her family dreamed of coming to America.

“We couldn’t make it down there,” Ortega, now 22, said as she waited in line outside the Convention Center. “We couldn’t afford to live down there. My dad worked on a farm with his dad, and my mom took care of us. They wanted us to get a better education, and they couldn’t afford it there.

“We had never seen pictures of the United States,” she said. “We didn’t know what to expect. And me and my sisters talked about America all the time. I said the first thing I was going to do was buy pants because we weren’t allowed to wear them in that small town. Women didn’t wear pants. It was bad.”

Rapid Assimilation

Ortega, who lives in the Riverside County town of Perris, moved to the United States with her family in 1970. And as was evident by her running shoes, jeans and gold Playboy bunny earrings, she has made quick work of slipping into the American life style.

“This is so special to me and all my family,” she said. “I’m the first one to do this. . . . Now, I’ll be like everybody else here. I won’t feel like I don’t deserve to be here, like I can’t do anything I want to do.”


It was that sense of patriotism that the INS wanted to celebrate in its mass ceremonies. But at times, the ceremonies seemed to take on Hollywood overtones.

After the oath of allegiance was recited, former California Atty. Gen. Evelle J. Younger read the 14th Amendment to the new citizens and exhorted them to become involved in their communities, to vote, to work for political candidates--and to become den mothers. During one ceremony, Younger asked that all den mothers in the audience raise their hands. One did.

“You are a full-fledged citizen,” he told the group. “There is no legal limit to what you can accomplish. And I hope you make the most of your opportunity.”

Symbols of America

At one of the Nov. 21 ceremonies, Harold Ezell, western regional commissioner of the INS, turned flag-waving into an art.

“What a day, what a tremendous day--the first day of the rest of your lives as American citizens,” he said, reaching for his miniature of the Statue of Liberty.

After a brief pep talk on “this beautiful lady who’s getting a face lift,” Ezell led the group in a rousing a cappella rendition of “God Bless America” as he waved a tiny plastic American flag.


Then came the video. As a large screen flashed with every possible image of Americana--the Statue of Liberty, wind-whipped American flags, the first men on the moon, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum graced by the Olympic flame--Lee Greenwood sang:

I thank my lucky stars to be living here today, ‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom, And they can’t take that away. I’m proud to be an American, Where at least I know I’m free, And I thank the men who died to give that right to me.

In the past two weeks, Gustafson watched Greenwood’s video all 12 times. But that, apparently, was not enough. “I own my own copy,” he said. “I love it. I play it at home.”

“This (ceremony) is great stuff for our district,” Gustafson said in a pre-ceremony interview. “What we’re doing by having large ceremonies is to help the court reduce its backlog.”

Until this year, he explained, the average wait for immigrants from the first day they filed for citizenship until the interview was 30 months. Now it is two months. In addition, the waiting period between interview and ceremony has been cut sharply.

“But personally, for me the importance of it (the mass ceremony) is just full love of country,” said Gustafson, who drives a pickup truck with license plates that read “IAM4USA.”


“If I could go through one of these without shedding a tear in deep appreciation of the sacrifices that it took to get these people here, it would be a switch,” he said.

“There is nothing like it. It sounds hokey. It sounds like I’m wearing patriotism on my sleeve, but it’s true. It’s fun stuff. It’s good stuff.”