191 Keep a Date With Miss Liberty

Times Staff Writer

If, on the day before America celebrated its independence, Hashem El-Ashqar truly had been free to choose, he would have been declared a citizen of the state of Palestine.

But it wasn’t as if El-Ashqar, an accounting student at San Diego State University, was disappointed to become an American. Like 190 other immigrant San Diegans naturalized as U.S. citizens on Monday, the native Palestinian proudly pledged his allegiance to the flag and wedded Miss Liberty.

“My heart’s still in the land of Palestine. I dream of a homeland,” said El-Ashqar, 25, who is working as a cashier at 7-Eleven while he finishes school. “But I’d like to have a country to belong to for a while.”

People from 45 countries were ready to belong: one each from Jordan, Japan, Malta and Russia; a handful from Poland and Vietnam; dozens from Mexico and the Philippine Islands. People with different faces, skin colors, accents and expressions all held one flag in the auditorium of the Scottish


Rite Temple in Mission Valley.

Patriotism had a definite role in Monday’s naturalization ceremony, administered by the San Diego branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Federal District Judge Gordon Thompson, whose father is Canadian and wife is Lebanese, talked of “being bound by a new allegiance now, that of loyalty to the United States,” and told the immigrants to “Keep in mind always--this is your country now.”

Fireworks and Ice Cream

Some new Americans talked of spending the Fourth of July lighting fireworks and eating ice cream to celebrate theirs, and their new country’s, independence. Most only hummed or sang bits and pieces of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but their voices rang out loud and clear as they gave the Pledge of Allegiance (which most read off a piece of paper).


“They’ve all made the right choice. It’s the way. Open roads,” said Rebeca Miller, a Mexican native naturalized almost three years ago who now attends every weekly ceremony as an INS volunteer. “I feel like I become a new citizen every week.”

Politics had a role in the ceremony, too. INS officials after the ceremony discovered that someone had given all the immigrants a handout on how to register as a voter--a Republican voter, that is. Such capers are not uncommon, said officials, who had no idea who perpetrated the scheme.

But for many of the immigrants, such life lessons had already been taught and learned. For many, it was not a new adventure, but the last piece of a political and cultural puzzle.

Marine Cpl. Maurice Duran lived in Colombia only briefly before moving in 1968 with his family to New York. Applying for American citizenship, though, was not a high priority.


Not ‘Everyday Thing’

“I never really thought about it, until I decided to apply for certain jobs, and then was told I had to be a citizen,” said Duran, 21. “I’m used to (American life), but this is a little different. This isn’t an everyday thing.”

Actually, it’s a weekly thing, INS officials said. Between 130 and 150 immigrants are sworn in as Americans each week--about 6,700 annually--in San Diego.

In fact, Divina Arcangel, 23, a native Filipino, actually was naturalized three weeks ago. But she was at the Scottish Rite Temple on Monday to watch her mother, 62-year-old Rosita Arcangel, make the pledge.


The family of El-Ashqar, too, came to watch him become an American. His mother, brother and sister, who traveled from Kuwait for the ceremony, may have been more aware than anyone else of the event’s timing. Their visas, explained El-Ashqar, were due to expire July 4.