But for most of them, the real transformation occurred long ago – the moment they embarked on a journey to the place they now call home.
THE CEREMONIES COMMENCE at precisely 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon, so the immigrants begin to arrive at 511 NW Broadway about an hour before. Since March 2003, this gothic-style edifice, once Portland’s main post office, has housed the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), formerly known as the INS. This is where most of Oregon’s foreign-born residents, whether they live in Beaverton or Pendleton, must come in order to become full-fledged U.S. citizens.
Through the metal detector at the entrance and up a flight of 38 marble steps is the place known, simply, as the “ceremony room.” It has burlap-colored fabric walls, a drop ceiling buzzing with fluorescent lamps, a sea of beige carpet, and six dozen government-issue chairs arranged before a stage on which sits a podium, an American flag, and a television set. Some of the people who arrive have pinned red, white, and blue corsages or American flags to their lapels. They wear dresses, suits, burkas, turbans, cowboy hats, baseball caps, blue jeans, T-shirts, heels, work boots, sneakers, and sandals. Some shush fussy babies; others lean on canes. Nearly every chair contains someone murmuring in a language other than English: Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Russian, Korean, Hindi, Kirundi.
Preceding the Oath of Allegiance, immigrants watch a video montage of Ellis Island images set to “America the Beautiful,” followed by a videotaped message from George W. Bush (“With a single oath, all at once, you become as American as the most direct descendants of our founding fathers”). Last comes a video of newly sworn-in citizens waving flags; “God Bless the USA (I’m Proud to Be an American)” plays in the background.
In 2006, 4,638 immigrants became new citizens in this room, and, on occasion, at other venues like the Hatfield Courthouse. Last year, that number increased slightly to 4,977. This year, the Portland USCIS projects the number will reach more than 10,000—so many that the office, which used to hold just one naturalization ceremony per day (at 2 p.m.), has had to add another one.
Whether the spike in attendance has been driven by economics (the fee for citizenship applications recently jumped from $320 to $595, and many wanted to file paperwork before the price went up), immigrants’ desire to vote in an election year, or the recent crackdowns on illegal aliens, Portland USCIS field office director Bill McNamee says that he’s been busier only once in the 30 years he’s worked in immigration. (That was the three-year period from 1998 to 2001, when he processed 45,000 refugees for resettlement to the United States during the breakup of Yugoslavia.) “I’m so fortunate to get to see this,” says McNamee, who was posted to Portland in 2001.
From 1990 to 2006, the U.S. foreign-born population nearly doubled, from 19.8 million to 37.5 million. In 2006, 12.5 percent of the nation’s population considered itself to be foreign-born, the highest percentage since the 1930s. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in Oregon, where immigrants make up 9.7 percent of the state’s population, the number of foreign-born residents skyrocketed from 139,307 in 1990 to 359,867 in 2006. During that same period, Portland’s immigrant population more than doubled—from 33,601 to 75,098—and now represents 13.9 percent of the city’s total population. Maps from the most recent census, which track foreign-born residents by zip code, show the highest concentrations of immigrants living in pockets of Beaverton, Rockwood, Happy Valley, Cornelius, and Hillsboro. In these communities, the number of foreign-born residents averages 21 percent, a level of diversity that’s on par with metropolitan Chicago. In Gervais, a predominantly Hispanic enclave near Woodburn, 32.4 percent of all residents are foreign-born.
They wear dresses, suits, burkas, turbans, cowboy hats, baseball caps, blue jeans, T-shirts, heels, sneakers, work boots, and sandals.
Not everyone embraces the trend. “Our country has a right to say we can’t accommodate any more people,” says Jim Ludwick, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, an organization that wants to limit the number of immigrants moving to the state. His group is sponsoring an initiative for the November ballot that would nullify part of an Oregon statute that prohibits police from arresting anyone whose sole violation is being in the country illegally.
Despite such efforts, or perhaps motivated by the nationwide backlash against immigrants (even against those who are in the country legally), more and more people convene at 511 NW Broadway every day. At the appointed time, candidates stand in three rows at the front, their backs to family and friends, and raise their right hands. Before he administers the oath, McNamee, standing beside an American flag, delivers a brief speech.
“Diversity is our strength,” he begins. “In this room, there are some who came to the United States seeking a basic freedom they could not experience in the country they came from. Some came here to be with family members; others to pursue economic opportunity. Each of you has a story of how you came to America.”
Exactly 478 immigrants were naturalized in Portland from April 23 to May 2 this year. Here are six of their stories.