Take oath, give opinion

Over two days, 12,000 people became citizens in ceremonies at the Miami Beach Convention Center. To get a fresh look on the immigration issue, talk to some of the people who just went through the process and are our newest citizens. Their views are mixed, too.

Published April 13, 2006

MIAMI BEACH - Less than a week after 10,000 people marched through downtown Miami calling for the legalization of undocumented immigrants, Lorna Gordon of Jamaica raised her right hand on Thursday morning and became a U.S. citizen.

Gordon was one of 12,000 people who were naturalized over the past two days at the Convention Center in Miami Beach. It took her several years, a lawyer and reams of paperwork to become a citizen, so that's why she isn't too thrilled at the prospect that 11-million illegal immigrants might someday receive amnesty with the stroke of a presidential pen.

"I don't think it's fair," said Gordon, a 57-year-old cosmetics manager. "I've been here, worked and done the right things. I think we should all go through the process."

Washington lawmakers are struggling to overhaul that process. A pending measure in the Senate would strengthen border security, create a guest worker program and offer eventual citizenship to many of the nation's illegal immigrants. Meanwhile the House passed a hard-line bill that would make illegal immigrants subject to felony charges.

Despite the debate, thousands of people around the country have filed paperwork to obtain citizenship legally, just like the 12,000 who recited the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time this week in Miami Beach in a cavernous convention center hall.

Yet Florida's newest citizens seem to be just as divided as the rest of the country over whether to grant U.S. citizenship to those without proper paperwork.

Erick Mendez, a 42-year-old Nicaraguan who lives in Miami Beach, said that he crossed into this country illegally via Mexico - which is one reason he supports full amnesty.

"I don't want people to go through what I went through," said Mendez, who later became a legal resident and, on Thursday, a citizen.

Vilma Berg, 45, said she is angry every time she hears about amnesty on the news. Born in Venezuela, she came to the United States when she married an American Marine sergeant - but her two sisters came here on legal visas and have paid thousands in lawyers' fees to obtain permanent residency.

Illegal immigrants should be given work permits, but not citizenship, Berg said.

"It would be like getting a reward for being illegal," she said.

Miami's naturalization ceremonies are among the largest in the country. So large, in fact, that the new citizens need to be processed in groups of 3,000.

The crowd Thursday was mostly older (Medicare benefits make citizenship more enticing, say immigration experts), and many had a shaky command of the English language. Although prospective citizens need to pass a test in English, that requirement can be waived under certain circumstances such as age or learning disabilities.

New citizens were greeted with information on how to register to vote and get a passport and a letter from President Bush. Finally, they were serenaded with God Bless the USA , the country anthem by Lee Greenwood.

The ceremonies are held every other month in Miami, a city where 51 percent of residents are foreign-born. The people who took the oath of citizenship this week reflected the racial and ethnic makeup of Florida: Cubans made up the largest group, followed by Nicaraguans, Jamaicans, Colombians and Haitians.

Unlike California and Texas, Florida does not have a large percentage of Mexican immigrants. That, along with the Cuban influence, has slightly skewed the immigration debate in Florida; the state has not seen protests as large as those in Los Angeles or Houston.

Cuban immigrants are not treated like other immigrants. If Cubans make it to American soil, they are allowed to apply for a green card and citizenship under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

More than 2,200 Cubans became citizens this week during the ceremonies in Miami Beach. Many, like Mario Aguilar and his wife, Dora Del Toro, waved tiny American flags and dressed in their best clothes to mark the importance of the day.

"It was one of our dreams to become a citizen of the United States," said the 45-year-old Aguilar in Spanish.

Unlike others, Aguilar wasn't so sure that full amnesty should be extended to illegal immigrants.

"We need to solve the problem of illegal immigration," he said. "We need amnesty, but with control. It's a dangerous time in this country, with the war and terrorism."

Many of the new citizens didn't have much of an opinion about the pending legislation. They were focused on the joy - and symbolism - of being able to vote in the United States and obtain a passport.

Haitian-born Joubert Point-du-jour, 26, closed his eyes and threw his head back as a man with a deep tenor voice sang the national anthem. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

"It's freedom," he said.

Point-du-jour works at Publix and takes classes at a local community college. The immigration system in the United States is just fine, he said. After all, he added, it wasn't difficult for him to obtain citizenship.

In the Tampa Bay area, immigrants have similarly conflicting views of the proposed legislation.

"It's legalization, not amnesty," said Amit Dehra, 30, an immigration lawyer from St. Petersburg who has been in the country since 1999 and is waiting for a green card. "People still have to work hard for it. They have to have a letter from an employer. They have to speak English fluently. It's not like walking to the park and getting a green card."

Some argued that it is foolish to ignore the present reality.

"Even though I went through the process and I waited and my wife is waiting, these people are already here and this country needs them," said Kamel Issa, 46, a real estate broker in Tampa who came here from Lebanon 25 years ago. His new wife from Lebanon is trying to get citizenship.

Ronald Steinhoff, 58, an immigrant from Canada, moved to St. Petersburg 11 years ago with his wife to start a CD business.

"There are pros and cons to both sides of it," he said, "but to me the best thing is to get them in and keep them working and if they are working, they will have to pay taxes and that's a plus."

He's expecting his citizenship any day now.

Times staff writer Leonora LaPeter contributed to this report.