Becoming A Citizen

Photo: greg westfall

Approximately 2 million Americans are members of the armed forces. And each and every one of them volunteered. Whether because they felt forced to by economic, social, or philosophical reasons, each one of them did so knowing it might mean they would one day be called upon to risk their lives in defense of their country and its interests. Which is why, I suspect, every member of the armed forces who I’ve ever questioned about their decision to enlist has expressed a deep and abiding appreciation for the freedoms that American citizenship affords. Sadly, it’s a perspective many of us have lost. We shouldn’t, perhaps, be blamed for it: we’re programmed to habituate to and take for granted anything we’re unlikely to lose.

But a recent experience of my wife’s reminded me just how lucky we are who live in countries that afford their citizens significant degrees of freedom. With her permission, then, and as told from her perspective, I’d like to share what happened to her below.

ENTER RHEA

I was born in Canada but have lived in this country for the last nine years with a green card, which I obtained when I married my husband, Alex. I decided to become a US citizen when our attorney suggested that doing so would make things easier for estate planning purposes.

My appointment to take the oath to become a US citizen was set for Friday November 30th at 9 am at the United States Immigration Service (USIS) office in downtown Chicago. When I arrived I was ushered through through metal detectors by security officers who didn’t seem the least bit interested in being friendly, attentive, or polite. After I reached the second floor I was told to sit in a very specific area of the waiting room (“Between these lines here, not those lines there“) with the mass of other immigrants. A government officer began getting us up row-by-row to enter the auditorium. (They were exceptionally concerned that we did this row-by-row and at a certain, controllable speed.) It annoyed me that they were moving us into the auditorium in such an inefficient way rather than simply having everyone walk into the room and sit down. I had things to do and wanted to get the citizenship ceremony over and done with.

Once we were all seated in the auditorium, the same officer who walked us in then had us get up—again row-by-row—to walk back out to the foyer, hand in our alien registration cards (i.e., green cards) to waiting USIS officers, and take a number. Why didn’t they just have us do this on the way in to the auditorium? I had no idea and as a result became increasingly frustrated. I had scheduled a meeting with a client at his office just around the corner, but there was no cell phone signal in the auditorium where we were being held. Fed up, I finally told an agent that I had to go the bathroom (which was apparently the only reason that would justify me leaving my seat at that point) to find a strong enough cell phone signal in the lobby of the building to pop off an email explaining that I was going to being late. That done, I reentered the auditorium resigned to the fact that this was going to be a long, boring process and that I just needed to be patient.

After an hour, the opening of the ceremony at last began. A video appeared on a large screen at the front of the room. It started by showing old photographs of people of differing nationalities coming in on boats, of families embracing, of American cities gradually expanding as a result of the back-breaking work of immigrants. At this point, I began to pay attention. I looked around at the other 145 immigrants seated with me in the auditorium—immigrants from countries like Albania, Bangladesh, Iraq, Iran, China, India, Mexico and so on—and it suddenly dawned on me that for many of them the ceremony in which we were all about to take part marked the end of a long and painful struggle to secure a better life—for them, their families, and their future generations.

Then the director of the facility—a naturalized US citizen herself, we soon learned—came onstage and spoke to us about the privilege US citizenship carries: about freedom of speech, benefits, a safe food chain, the right to vote for both men and women, and so on. I suddenly began to get emotional, my impatience (about which I felt suddenly embarrassed) quickly shifting to gratitude for having been being born a Canadian, which had afforded me the opportunity to become an American. I didn’t have to fight, literally or figuratively, to be standing there. But many of my fellow new citizens, I suddenly understood, were from countries where speech is not free, where women often felt fear of rape and hunger on a daily basis. Some of the people around me, I realized, had struggled through horrors I’d couldn’t imagine to be able to stand in that place, a place only an hour before I’d been annoyed I had to spend so much time in, and I felt at once humbled and privileged to be standing beside them as I took the same solemn oath. I continued to look around the room while the director spoke about the significance of getting to this place—the Oath Ceremony—a privilege that is only bestowed on a few lucky individuals. Standing with me were people young and old, some dressed in saris, some in turbans, some in suits—but all of us there to become US citizens, full of hope and excitement about out futures.

After the director’s speech we were told a list of each country would be read out loud, and we were asked to stand when we heard our country’s name. “Albania!” came the first, and a few people in the group stood, all with joyful smiles. “Canada!” I heard soon, and I stood, smiling the same smile as the rest, looking around for any fellow countrymen (I didn’t see any).

Once the entire room was standing the director of the office moved that we become US citizens, which was then seconded by another officer officiating at the ceremony. I wasn’t the only one crying as we proceeded to pledge our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

We were asked to sit and then (again) row-by-row come up to receive our certificate of naturalization. As each row stood, I looked again at the faces of my fellow immigrants and thought what I now saw reflected in their smiles was the grit that had ultimately enabled them to reach this place. I was no longer irritated or impatient. I was grateful for the freedom I’ve been privileged to experience as a Canadian—and now an American.

Unexpectedly, the ceremony in which I became a US citizen has come to represent a milestone in my life. I’ve never had to fear being raped, or hunger, or imprisonment for simply speaking my mind. I’ve had my basic human rights secured by the founders of this country who in some cases traded their lives for the freedom of their children and fellow countrymen—by people who never met me but whose actions have powerfully influenced the direction of my life. I came away from the swearing-in ceremony with a new appreciation for the privileges afforded us by citizenship in this country, and after watching my fellow new citizens’ faces as they took their oath, I will never forget how large a place the planet is and just how lucky we few Americans are.

Next Week: When Everything Seems To Be Going Wrong, Redux

14 comments to Becoming A Citizen

  • Keith

    Alex—how do we find happiness in this World when we face tragedies like Newtown? What about tragedies like starvation in Somalia? How do we carry on without becoming cynical, angry, and selfish?

    Keith: Look for examples of the opposite, where people made sacrifices to help others. They’re everywhere. Just not trumpeted by the media.

    Alex

  • Seri M

    Thanks for a touching post. This reminds me of when our daughter was adopted as an infant from South Korea and later became a US citizen—we took the oath for her. She’s now 30 years old. 🙂

  • J. L. Rivers

    This article brought a big smile to my face. It reminded me of my own swearing-in ceremony for naturalization back in April of 2007 in New York. I too was annoyed at the security guards whose only job seemed to be being complete trolls to those of us who were going to the auditorium. I too was impatient at how long the ceremony was being delayed, even when it seemed that everyone was already there. My frustration and impatience morphed into appreciation too, after the introductory video began rolling and I could see some people in the room with tears in their eyes. The realization that for them, that moment was a culmination of long years of pursuing a dream, also came to mind and it made me feel grateful of being part of the fabric that makes this country what it is today.

  • et

    Did it occur to you that the whole process seems like a way to solicit gratitude and loyalty?

    First, make people obedient by performing time wasting rituals;

    Second, show subservient people that someone else has the power to make them stand “here,” not “there”;

    Third, perform emotional ceremony complete with symbols of power.

  • Congratulations.

    In my home state of Gujarat, India, we say that people would put a pass to heaven on hold if they got a GC, or even a breathing chance at a GC. Yes, it IS that big.

    You’re a wonderful writer, Rhea.

  • Elle

    Many Congratulations!!!

    I agree that being a U.S. citizen confers many advantages that we, as citizens, often (usually) take for granted. One need only live near a border, like the border between the U.S. and Mexico, to see how different one’s life could be if one had had the fortune of being born on the other side of a seemingly arbitrary line. The differences are stark, and sometimes brutal and all too often lately, life-threatening. It is one more thing to be grateful for, even in the saddest of times.

  • David Hicks

    Indeed, a very touching post by Rhea. I don’t wish to rain on your parade guys but I for one give praise that I am not an American citizen. I note, Alex, that you report “just how lucky we are who live in countries that afford their citizens significant degrees of freedom.” Indeed, significant degrees of freedom are experienced in the USA & in my own country, Australia.

    I have just re-Googled Chalmers Johnson: CIA analyst, distinguished scholar, and best-selling author, who argues that US military and economic overreach may actually lead to the nation’s collapse as a constitutional republic. He tells us there are right now 737 American military bases on every continent, in well over 130 countries & that over 20 million people were killed by American military & economic & political interventions in the 50 years between 1945 & 1995. Iraq, Afghanistan etc. had not even been invaded & occupied when Johnson wrote his first book, “Blowback.”

    And now we have your president behaving like your number one ally in the Middle East—Israel—assassinating American citizens [by drone] in foreign countries without trial. By their deeds shall ye know them. As I say, I am very glad to not be an American citizen. There is much less shame involved!

  • Elle

    Dear Mr. Hicks,

    I understand your sentiment and I respect your opinion as well informed. There are no doubt many aspects of American foreign and military policy that are not exemplary; these areas are, by their nature, complicated and thorny to say the least—they are beyond my scope of knowledge or experience to address. However, I would just like to add that the U.S. has been and continues to be a destination, a sanctuary, for those who have been tortured, abused, persecuted, cast out, discriminated against, and held captive as prisoners of conscience. Two well known individuals come to mind immediately: Elie Wiesel (Nobel prize laureate and author)

    http://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/holo/eliebio.htm

    and Alicia Partnoy (author and human rights activist.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alicia_Partnoy

    Indeed, “By their deeds ye shall know them.”

  • jenny eckersley

    I would have liked to be able to write how much I empathized with Rhea’s emotions when she became a citizen of the USA. I am sorry that I could not share her feelings, having watched the tragedy at Newtown, and knowing that a large number of Americans will fight to the ends of the earth (sometimes literally) to hang on to their beloved guns. When the USA gives up this disgusting commitment to this misinterpreted 2nd amendment, I might feel more charitable.

  • What a unique post and discussion trail, from the estate planning motivation to embarrassment to shame to pride to bible quote. Wow. I had never before heard of estate planning benefits as the motivation for becoming a U.S. citizen. Thank you for that tidbit of information. Rhea, please consider contacting the Naturalization office with suggestions for how they may implement positive changes, and so that other people won’t feel the need to make up a lie just to get up and out of their seat to attend to business or other matters during a possibly “needlessly lengthy” process. Maybe someone at that office (or a reader of this blog) will help explain the security guard posture and the linear entry. Who knows, there might actually be some intelligent thinking behind what appears as utter absurdity in these rigidly secured areas we all encounter, at airports and maybe what will be coming to our schools.

    Giselle M. Massi
    http://www.gisellemassi.com

  • Amy

    I have been in the military for 21 years, yes, a volunteer (MD). I and my colleagues have been deployed to countries where human rights were minimal, basic sanitation and food safety absent, physical security a constant worry, and education just a dream. It makes me truly grateful for the advantages I have in the US, and determined to vote and participate in the government process (jury duty, etc.) when I can. Five years ago I went to the ceremony when my nanny gained citizenship, taking my younger son with me. The event was much like Rhea described—and so incredibly moving. Yes, it is a GREAT struggle for the majority who seek citizenship. Never forget that. And if you don’t like the actions of our government, make your voice heard—it’s your responsibility and right.

  • Tara

    My mother (also Canadian) became a US citizen recently because if my father dies first (he is American) she could be hit with huge estate taxes. If you are a foreign national married to an American this is something important to know.

    I had a different experience when I became a French citizen. It took place in a foreign embassy so there was no ceremony, only a private meeting and the presentation of a certificate. But I will never forget the consular officer’s statement that being French was a privilege, not a right, and we who are lucky enough to live in parts of the free world (of which Canada, France and the US can claim that distinction) should keep that in mind. All countries have their flaws, but we mustn’t forget the many privileges we enjoy.

  • David Hicks

    By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 17th December 2012 : [extract]

    Like Bush’s government in Iraq, Barack Obama’s administration neither documents nor acknowledges the civilian casualties of the CIA’s drone strikes in north-west Pakistan. But a report by the law schools at Stanford and New York universities suggests that during the first three years of his time in office, the 259 strikes for which he is ultimately responsible killed between 297 and 569 civilians, of whom 64 were children(4). These are figures extracted from credible reports: there may be more which have not been fully documented.

    The wider effects on the children of the region have been devastating. Many have been withdrawn from school because of fears that large gatherings of any kind are being targeted. There have been several strikes on schools since George W Bush launched the drone programme that Obama has expanded so enthusiastically: one of Bush’s blunders killed 69 children(5).

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