Chief Justice Leads Massive Swearing In of New Citizens

Times Staff Writer

Echoing the great era of America’s immigrant past, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger welcomed more than 15,000 new Americans to liberty and citizenship Thursday night.

Standing before the ghostly red-brick ruins of historic Ellis Island, Burger swore in 267 people from 109 countries with a solemn oath of allegiance to this melting-pot nation of immigrants.

“People were meant to be free,” Burger said in an open-air courtroom built on the island through which nearly 17 million new Americans once passed.


Via satellite television and audio hookups, Burger simultaneously led thousands of other immigrants in Miami’s Orange Bowl, San Francisco’s scenic Crissy Field, on the steps of St. Louis’ Old Courthouse and at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington in the unusual naturalization ceremony.

Two television sets flanked the wind-swept stage here, and the black-robed Burger appeared bemused as he sat through several minutes of televised commercials, singing and appearances by entertainers Kenny Rogers and Robert De Niro.

“I think it was very American, with hamburger advertisements in the middle of waiting to become Americans,” new citizen Tsipi Ben-Haim, 34 and born in Israel, said with a laugh.

But several other participants cried, most waved tiny American flags, and all cheered and shook hands when the traditional oath was completed. Hundreds of boats surrounding the nearby Statue of Liberty tooted their horns in salute.

The nation’s newest citizens ranged from napping 10-month-old Felipe Gorkic of Guatemala to grinning 25-year-old bartender Leka Rukha of Albania.

“This is the biggest day of my life,” said Rukha, dressed in his finest suit. “Next week, I’m getting married. You only become a citizen once. You can always get married again.”

The new Americans included dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and comedienne Yakov Smirnoff, both from the Soviet Union. Smirnoff said that he decided to apply for citizenship after performing before President Reagan at a Republican dinner last year.

“I was very nervous,” recalled the 35-year-old Californian, sporting a U.S. flag in his tuxedo jacket’s breast pocket. “If he doesn’t like you, you’ll never work this country again.”

‘I Want to Vote’

Still others were pensive. “If this country is good enough to give me a job and a home, I figure I owe something in return,” said Sam Varghese, 33, from India, a junior high school teacher in the Bronx. “I want to vote.”

Across America, in such places as Adak, Alaska, and Yuma, Ariz., 26,525 immigrants were scheduled to be naturalized in 49 ceremonies this Independence Day weekend, according to Immigration and Naturalization Service officials.

The largest naturalization ceremony in the nation’s history took place in Miami, the INS said. Local judges administered the oath and Burger spoke via an audio hook-up to about 14,200 mostly-Cuban petitioners gathered in the giant Orange Bowl.

Some Judges Protest

The evening was not without controversy. Several judges complained that TV ads and Hollywood stars were inappropriate for a dignified legal proceeding.

In Los Angeles, Chief U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real rejected organizers’ requests to hold the naturalization ceremony in Memorial Coliseum or at Dodger Stadium. Instead, judges will swear in more than 12,000 new citizens over four days next week at the Convention Center. About 1,000 people from 78 nations stood at San Francisco’s Crissy Field near the Golden Gate Bridge to take the oath of allegiance in a ceremony presided over by U.S. District Judge Robert F. Peckham.

While waiting for Burger to administer the oath by audio hook-up, the crowd of about 3,000 stood waving flags handed out by the INS and sang “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.”

In Washington, D.C., U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell officially swore in about 120 immigrants Thursday afternoon. They later gathered without him on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial to repeat the oath with Burger on TV.

Judge John Nangle in St. Louis also swore in more than 100 immigrants earlier in the day. But he joined them later on the national TV hook-up.

Pomp and History

However, the flap was overshadowed by the pomp and history of Ellis Island, a long-abandoned 27-acre island a mile off Manhattan’s Battery.

Between its opening in 1892 and closing in 1954, Ellis Island admitted nearly 17 million immigrants. In 1907, the peak year, 1,285,349 immigrants, mostly European, entered the United States there.

Today, nearly half of all living Americans can trace their heritage to relatives who took their first U.S. steps on Ellis Island.

More than $100 million has been raised to restore the Great Hall, the cavernous red-and-white brick main building. Although other plans for the island are incomplete, the hall is scheduled to be reopened as an immigration museum in 1988.

Sardined into steerage, fighting homesickness and seasickness, up to 11,000 people--women in shawls clutching feather pillows, bearded men in heavy coats, children dwarfed by their steamer trunks--arrived each day in the early century’s great immigration surge.

They found a warren of Byzantine-style buildings with red spires and bulbous green cupolas, a Babel of languages and a gantlet of stern-faced immigration officials.

Only 2% Turned Away

Four out of five passed the medical and legal exams in a few hours and were soon reunited with relatives and friends at the famed “kissing post.” Only 2% were turned away.

In recent months, National Parks Service conservators found emotional graffiti scrawled on the walls and carved in wooden sills and benches.

“Thinking of home brings tears,” one writer scribbled in Chinese on a men’s room wall. “Lucky just to arrive in Flowery Flag country. I expected peace with no worries. Who knew the immigration guards would detain us?”

About one third of all Ellis Island immigrants initially settled in the New York area. Mayor Edward I. Koch paid tribute to that heritage earlier this week when he presented Liberty Medals to 86 prominent immigrants, ranging from Cuban musician Mongo Santamaria to German sexologist Ruth Westheimer.

“As mayor, I govern today more Jews than live in Jerusalem, more blacks than in Nairobi, more Irish than in Dublin, more Puerto Ricans than live in San Juan, more Italians than in Florence,” Koch said. “What a country! What a city!”

Staff writer Mariann Hansen in San Francisco contributed to this story.