In one motion all 219 immigrants in the packed courtroom are on their feet and raising their right hands. Judge Marvin Aspen asks if they agree to renounce allegiance to all other governments and to defend and support the Constitution and laws of the United States. Although weeks of paper work and background checks have preceded this moment, the joint "I do" from this respectful, generally well-dressed crowd changes them all in a matter of seconds from foreigners to Americans in every sense but heritage.
The judge tells the new citizens that his own parents once took the same oath , that they have accepted new obligations (like voting) by their move, but that they have chosen a "great country . . . [with] only one class of citizen." The new Americans clap softly and soon head off with their new citizenship documents in hand to a welcoming recepton at a nearby YWCA.
The mass admission of new citizens happens every Tuesday on the 25th floor of Chicago's federal district court building. Similar naturalization ceremonies occur weekly or monthly in every major city across the country. The result for the United States is an addition of almost 1,000 new citizens a day, or about 300,000 a year.
Although it is the growing number of illegal immigrants in search of work that is the focus of most public concern these days, the number of legal immigrants --coming in variously under numerical quotas, as refugees, and in an open-ended program as immediate relatives of US citizens -- has been surging almost unnoticed to about 600,000 or more a year, double the figure of 10 years ago. Another 1 million immigrants overseas are waiting their turn at legal entry.
Citizenship is encouraged as a follow-up to legal immigration, but the number of applicants is growing almost beyond the Immigration and Naturalization Service's ability to cope. "We can't handle too many more -- we're almost at capacity," cautions INS spokesman Vern Jervis.
While most Americans take some pride in their country's reputation as a melting pot, the current flood of immigrants through both legal and illegal channels has made many question whether America's pledge to welcome the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" has been too generous for its own good. A recent Roper Organization poll showed that nine of 10 Americans surveyed support an "all-out effort" against illegal immigration. Almost as many -- eight of 10 -- favor reducing the humber of legal immigrants.
It is in large part out of frustration over the nation's inability so far to crack down effectively on illegal aliens that some leaders in the immigration policy field are eager to change the limits for legal immigrants as well.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, the new chairman of the Senate Immigration and Refugee Policy Subcommittee who argues that Americans are suffering from "compassion fatigue," favors lowering and putting a firmer ceiling on the number of legal immigrants arriving in this country. He would include a firm cap on the refugee component, which he says could otherwise easily account for the lion's share of the total.
By contrast, the Select Commission on immigration and Refugee Policy, a bipartisan blue-ribbon group of 16 that recently delivered a major report on the subject to Congress, recommends increasing the numerical quota for legal immigrants --year for the next five years in hopes of easing the backlog of the many waiting to come to this country. Commission spokeswoman Nina Solarz explains that the group's hope in raising the figure is that, coupled with stricter enforcement efforts aimed at the illegal alien, it will serve as an additional safety valve.
"The intent is that it may accommodate the need, particularly of those who keep going back and forth across the border, and lead to more stability and less illegal immigration," she explains.
The whole question of future US immigration policy in light of the commission's report is slated for debate in House hearings last week of April and in joint congressional hearings beginning May 5.
Much of the discussion is expected to center on how to crack down more effectively on illegal aliens through those employing them. The commission, which has urged amnesty for all current illegal immigrants and penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens, could not agree on what verification method employers could use without being subject to charges of discrimination. Congress is sure to debate at length the options, including an improved social security card.
Much may depend on the Reagan administration's views, as yet unknown. A Cabinet-level task force headed by Attorney General William French Smith is reviewing the commission's report and will submit a series of policy papers to the White House in early May.