What does it mean to be an American?
"It means everything."
That was the response newly minted U.S. citizens gave over and over again at a huge naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles.
Three thousand, seven hundred candidates for citizenship from 126 countries, along with their friends and families — many waving small flags — crowded into a cavernous hall at the L.A. Convention Center for the mass swearing-in on June 16.
As a magnet for immigrants, Los Angeles has been dubbed "the new Ellis Island." This year, according to immigration authorities, more than 100,000 people in the Los Angeles area — about one-fifth of the half million who take the oath every year in this country — will be sworn in as new American citizens.
"It's the most important day of my life," said Glenn Myers, a 54-year-old data-processing administrator originally from Belize, "Being in the greatest democracy in the world, there is no better country that I'd rather be in."
Myers came to the United States in 1973 seeking, and finding, a better life than he had back home. His wife, Laurine, also from Belize, became a U.S. citizen in February. They have five children and seven grandchildren and are looking forward to retirement, spending more time with their family and traveling across the country.
Laurine Myers said the ceremony left her with goose bumps. "I felt like crying," she said. "It's very sentimental to me. I take it deeply and personally."
Both of them say they're thankful for the opportunities they've had in the U.S. "My hope for the next five to ten years is to be a millionaire,” said Glenn, clad in a festive tropical shirt. “Seriously."
A bittersweet day
After taking the oath of citizenship, Martha Escalante, 49, reflected on the bittersweet mix of feelings the day evoked.
"It was very emotional," she said.
Originally from El Salvador, Escalante came to America in 1968 with her mother. A brother, Adalberto, serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, had successfully petitioned the government to grant them legal residency; however, Adalberto was killed in combat the following year and Martha said life here has had its share of tragedies and hardships.
Divorced for 17 years, she raised four children as a single mother while working as a medical billing agent and collector. "I've been contributing to this country for 40 years," she said, "and now it's time to do it one hundred percent."
Her main regret, she said, is that her mother died in April and didn't live to see this day. "But … wherever she is,” she added, “she's going to be happy."
Importance of a vote
Many of the new citizens spoke about the importance of their newly earned right to go to the polls in America, a right that many native-born Americans often don't exercise.
“Finally, I can vote,” said Keiichi Leon, 29, originally from Japan. “I can choose our leader."
Leon, married with no children, lives in Hawthorne, Calif., and works as an interpreter. "I can participate in the political system in this country," he said, "with a new life and a new future."
It was a sentiment echoed by Noemi Lopez, 43, who owns a bakery in Upland, Calif.
"It's important for me to be an American citizen," Lopez said, "Because after today they can hear my voice."
As an owner of a small business, Lopez, originally from Mexico, said she's also thankful for the opportunities in America. "I believe that I'm going in the right direction to have a better life," she said. "The United States gives a great opportunity to get where we want to be."
She also talked about the possibilities in this country for her two sons. Here dreams for them? "To see my kids coming out of college, become professional, to see them be a great citizen."
Large Mexican contingent
Mexico consistently produces the largest group of new American citizens at these Southern California naturalization ceremonies, and with the current debate over illegal workers, immigrant-rights groups are hoping an influx of newly naturalized voters from Mexico will send a message to Washington.
One such is Adela Zanudo Guadarrama, who came to the United States from Mexico 30 years ago when she was 13. "I had no choice," Zanudo said, "My parents brought me and I went to school here."
And, she said, she's eternally thankful that her parents made that choice for her. "Maybe I fell asleep," she said about the experience of becoming a citizen after so many years, "and I'm dreaming that I'm here."
Would Zanudo, an associate manager in a retail store who lives in Buena Park, Calif., with her husband and five children, ever think about going back to Mexico?
“Not in a million years," she responded emphatically. "I want to grow old [here], I want to move up," she said, "And this is where I want to die."