Eleven years ago, Marek Sokol abandoned his drama school in Warsaw for freedom from communism -- and a new career as owner of a construction business in Rockville. In 1990, Alice F. Chen, 20, left China for a better education in the United States, which she says she has found as a sophomore at the University of Maryland.
Yesterday, they and 3,199 other immigrants gathered at USAir Arena in Landover for what Maryland-based officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service called the largest naturalization ceremony in recent memory.
The newly sworn-in citizens hailed from 119 different countries and ranged in age from 4 to 93.
The atmosphere inside the arena, where the Washington Bullets and Capitals play, resembled that of an athletic event. New citizens cheered loudly and munched on nachos and pizza from the arena's concession booths. And together they took the oath of allegiance, including the renunciation of "fidelity to any foreign prince" and a promise to "bear arms" for the United States if required by law.
The ceremony also struck political themes. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who administered the oath, warned in a brief speech against those "who urge that the U.S. adopt a moratorium" on immigration.
"Look at these new immigrants who follow this nation's great traditions who have raised their families in a nation whose greatness has come not from the people it turned away but from those it welcomed," she said.
Planning for the mass naturalization began in September, and INS officials trumpeted the ceremony as an example of the service's commitment to emphasizing legal immigration and reducing the wait to become a citizen.
Applications for citizenship have increased nationwide from 340,000 in fiscal 1992 to more than a million for fiscal 1995, according to INS records. In Los Angeles, applicants for citizenship can wait two years; but with yesterday's naturalization ceremony, Maryland no longer has a backlog of naturalization applicants, INS officials said.
"It's over with, finally," said Shirley Mark, 60, of West Baltimore, after yesterday's ceremony. She left her native Trinidad 20 years ago to come to the United States.
Ilona Lantos, 81, had an even longer journey. Her first two husbands (one of whom was killed by Nazis) died in Hungary. Five years ago, she decided to marry a Silver Spring psychiatrist and move to Maryland. Yesterday, she whispered the oath of allegiance.
"It's a great honor," she said excitedly in Hungarian, her husband, George, serving as an interpreter. Then she added, her face intent: "I want to vote."