COLLEGE PARK -- Nothing at Ellis Island could rival the moment: Charmaine Cameron became a citizen of the United States yesterday -- and a mother at very nearly the same time.
The soft-spoken native of Jamaica who now makes her home in Columbia arrived at the University of Maryland campus expecting to be sworn in as a naturalized citizen along with about 2,000 other Maryland residents.
Instead, Ms. Cameron went into labor and refused to leave for the hospital without first taking the oath of allegiance.
And so, as an ambulance attendant timed her contractions, Ms. Cameron became an American in a drab, gray hallway at Cole Field House.
At the hurried ceremony, held minutes before the larger, scheduled event, even the most experienced employees of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service seemed caught up in the excitement.
One wept and several yelled, "Oh, cut to the end, let her go," as Louis "Don" Crocetti Jr., acting deputy director of the Baltimore District, slowly read Ms. Cameron every word of the oath.
"It's a big, big day. Would you believe it?" said Evelyn Cameron, Ms. Cameron's mother, a citizen since 1990. "It is a too-big day," she added as her daughter, clutching her certificate of citizenship, was wheeled out of the field house on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance.
Nearly three hours later, Charmaine Cameron, 28, gave birth to her second child, who, by birthright, is a U.S. citizen.
The main event
The main event at College Park was the largest naturalization ceremony ever held in Maryland, said INS officials.
It came about because the Baltimore District is clearing all outstanding applications for citizenship. Another larger-than-usual ceremony is scheduled for July or August, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Mr. Crocetti said.
The reason for the push is to make way for a pilot program, in which all applications will be processed at a regional office in Vermont rather than in Baltimore.
Officials say this will save time and money, but will not eliminate any jobs.
And so the field house, clearly designed for basketball games and still decorated for the university's graduation ceremony held last week, temporarily housed thousands of overjoyed, weeping, laughing, hugging new U.S. citizens and their families and friends.
The 2,000 would-be citizens watched as a U.S. Coast Guard Honor Guard marched, then listened to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md.-8th, and others speak.
Onlookers listened quietly until after the group oath was recited, then cheered in many tongues. They waved banners written only in English, however.
"This is my country and it is the best country," proclaimed Calvin J. Best, Jr., originally from the Republic of Panama and now living in Oxon Hill, as he filed through the line to claim his citizenship certificate.
"I love America," said Carolita Hoover of Yquitos, Peru, whose American-born husband, Robert Hoover of Silver Spring, videotaped her as she took the oath, picked up her certificate, and displayed it proudly in front of an American flag.
"We're going to celebrate!" he said as he shook hands with anyone within reach.
"We will all celebrate," said Charles Heller, formerly of South Africa, now of Rockville, who was sworn in with his two daughters.
As for Charmaine Cameron, she will celebrate each May 24, as the anniversary of her citizenship and the birthday of her 7-pound daughter, born at the Prince George's Hospital Center at 6:58 p.m.