LOS ANGELES – Record crowds of immigrants — more than 18,000 in all — took citizenship oaths here Thursday, a showing credited to rising fees, a heated debate over illegal immigration and one of the brand-new Americans raising their hands.
In becoming a citizen, radio host Eduardo "Piolin" Sotelo was taking the advice he has frequently dispensed on the nation's most popular Spanish-language radio show.
"This is a new page in my life," the native of Mexico said as he was swarmed by well wishers and fans clamoring for a photo. "We have to make a difference."
Sotelo, who came to the country illegally 22 years ago in a car trunk, chronicled his own citizenship process as he urged fellow Hispanics to seek citizenship at a time when immigration is still a hot-button issue and a presidential election is underway.
The need for three separate ceremonies at the Los Angeles Convention Center — a local record for the number of people sworn in one day — reflected a 350 percent increase in citizenship applications last summer before immigration fees jumped from $400 to $675 on Aug. 1.
On top of that, Spanish-language media, including Univision and Telemundo, launched massive campaigns to get more immigrants to become citizens and vote.
Sotelo, the outspoken host of the Los Angeles-based morning show "Piolin por la manana," has used his syndicated soapbox to rally hundreds of thousands to march for immigration reform and encourage legal residents to become Americans. The show is aired in at least a dozen U.S. markets.
"Now we have one more vote to defend our rights," Sotelo said of his citizenship.
Sotelo went from collecting cans to working in radio but got fired because he was an illegal immigrant. He later got a work permit in Sacramento, where his radio career began to take off.
Maury Martinez, 32, who was born in El Salvador and emigrated 14 years ago, said the citizenship drives ultimately led him to the convention center where he was sworn in before a giant star spangled banner.
"It was everywhere," Martinez said as he clutched a miniature flag in one hand and his citizenship certificate in the other. "I want to vote. It's time we take action to shape the way the country is being run."
New citizens hailed from some 100 countries, with the largest number, 7,770, from Mexico, followed by 1,882 from El Salvador and 1,477 from the Philippines.
The government administered 468,878 oaths of citizenship in the U.S. from Oct. 1 through April 30, up 35 percent from 348,591 during the same period a year earlier, said Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Immigration officials could not immediately say if the number of new citizens set a record nationally. Los Angeles and Miami favor huge ceremonies while other cities administer oaths as soon as applications are approved.
Miami has five ceremonies scheduled over two days next week to administer 15,000 oaths at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
While the Orange Bowl in Miami hosted a citizenship ceremony for 14,200 people on July 4, 1986, the Miami office typically has held four ceremonies over two days every three months, administering 12,000 oaths each round at the convention center, said CIS spokeswoman Ana Santiago.
Los Angeles normally has two ceremonies with about 6,000 people each. To the east in Pomona, another regularly held citizenship ceremony produced 10,500 new citizens last month, three times more than usual according to local immigration officials.
Rhatigan said congressional debate to overhaul immigration, which heated up in 2006, fueled an increase in citizenship applications. The plan that would have granted a path to citizenship for millions eventually failed, as did a proposal that would have made illegal immigration a felony.
Voting is a key reason people of all nationalities choose to become citizens, said immigration officials, who had set up voter registration tables inside the ceremony hall as well as a passport application and photo area.
"I want to be part of America," said Jay Kim, 27, of South Korea. "I feel it's my home and I want my voice heard."