They began showing up at the locked gates of Universal Studios at 3 o'clock in the morning. They hadn't come to see King Kong, the A Team or the other attractions on the movie lot's popular tour.
They were there to become citizens of the United States of America.
"I didn't want to miss a thing," said one native of Mexico who didn't want his name published. "But this is the best day of my life," he added.
He was one of 6,500 people from 94 countries who became American citizens in two massive naturalization ceremonies Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre, the second-largest single-day swearing-in ever in Los Angeles.
The ceremonies, held at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., were so large that there was little parking left for morning visitors arriving for the Universal Studios tour. Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway was clogged for several hours, forcing some motorists to use side streets to avoid the congestion.
Federal immigration officials said the new citizens are continuing proof that Los Angeles has become America's new "Ellis Island." Most of the new citizens came from the so-called Pacific Rim countries that have developed strong ties to this area--Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
One-sixth of Wednesday's inductees were from Vietnam--boat people who left Southeast Asia in the late 1970s and early '80s who have just met the five-year legal residency requirement.
Also inducted were 175 immigrants from the Soviet Union, an unusually high number for a naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles.
Ernest Gustafson, district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service here, said large induction ceremonies have become necessary here as INS employees work on applications that stretch back to 1983. The backlog now is about 60 to 90 days, he said, and the situation is compounded by the record numbers of people--an estimated 7,000 a month--who are applying for citizenship.
The backlog has been eased by special task forces of immigration examiners and clerks who worked solely on the applications, he added.
Typical of the recent large ceremonies were those conducted in one week last November in which 70,000 were naturalized. The largest induction here occurred in 1981 at the Memorial Coliseum when 10,000 people took the oath of citizenship.
Enthusiasm for the red, white and blue was evident Wednesday.
In the morning, 75-year-old Cirillo Dupra was beaming after the ceremony. "I cried when I raised my hand (to take the oath)," said the Philippine native.
Her daughter, Vinnie, who became a citizen in 1975, said: "This is an incredible day for all of us."
Many in the audience fought back tears when Manuel L. Real, Los Angeles' chief federal judge who presided over Wednesday's ceremonies, told them that he was proud to be the first person to call them "my fellow Americans."
Abraham Flores, a native of Piedras Negras, Mexico, seemed serene as he waited in the bright sunshine after the ceremony to pick up his citizenship certificate in a line that stretched for nearly half a mile.
"I'll wait," he said patiently.