It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am, in fact, “not from round here”. Like countless millions before me, of all races, creeds and colors, I moved to the United States of America in pursuit of a better, happier life. I moved to escape lingering shadows, holding me back with guilt and false loyalty and inhibiting every attempt to better myself. It would be a new beginning; pressing the reset button on a life going nowhere. The remaining shackles of my pre-American life were ripped unceremoniously off me, as the man I accompanied on my journey traded me in for a sports car – an unfair exchange in my opinion, he might have waited for the upgrade first. Good fortune came to me in the form of the person who would become my husband – he saved my floundering self from drowning in despair and from having to return, a failure, to my mediocre pre-existence, and to whom, I am forever indebted.
As a recent immigrant, I have witnessed first hand, the byzantine machinations of the Immigration and Naturalization Service – as it was then known. Applying for a Green Card is an exercise in patience and paperwork, extreme enough to test the serenity of a Zen Master.
Fun Fact: you also have to have money to get through the process – it is not just a question of filling in a few forms and signing on the dotted line.
If one hopes to expedite the process at all, hiring an attorney who is wise to the ways of the federal government, is essential. That expense does not include the various fees and tariffs necessary to get paperwork, fingerprinting, photographs, etc. through the system. It would be nice if those individuals who think that immigration to this country is easy, could understand how frustrating it can be to have a form returned because of a clerical error and thus, be slammed back to the beginning, like some especially cruel game of chutes and ladders.
And I speak, read and understand English. I can only imagine how hard it is for those who do not speak English or Spanish – the only other language that the paperwork is in. (There are webpages with guides in other languages, but the printed forms were only in English and Spanish).
As a White European, I was often frustrated at the sloth-like pace of the government. Even though I was (and still am, of course), married to an US citizen, the speed of the application for Permanent Residency Status was glacial at best. When I finally received that precious, scrappy little white (not green) card, the relief was overwhelming. It had taken two long years and hundreds of dollars. And that was the Expedited Process.
Imagine what it must be like to be a dark-skinned, non-European, non-Christian, with a hard to pronounce name, to get through the labyrinth. Even worse, imagine how hard it must be for those who have been forced from their homes and countries through no fault of their own other than the misfortune to be caught in a war zone, or tyranny, or both. Refugees are vetted more thoroughly than any other group – more often than not, waiting in horrific, unsanitary camps while “t’s” are crossed and “i’s” are dotted. These unfortunates are not, as we are lead to believe, “pouring through” open borders. Nor are they armed to the teeth, ready to unleash bloody murder upon us. They are human beings seeking sanctuary.
These people are not the terrorists you are looking for.
The decision to become a Citizen was not taken lightly. It took many months of thought and soul-searching – was I finally going to leave my old identity behind? In the end, practicality forced my hand. I had two young children, both born US citizens, to think about. What would they think if I had to leave them and go into a separate line to get through Immigration and Customs at the airport or seaport? Plus, I figured, if I was going to live here for the rest of my life, I should probably get involved with my adopted country, rather than keep it at arm’s length. Thus began the journey to Citizenship.
While not nearly as painful as the Green Card application, the process to Citizenship required the usual bureaucratic contortions and fees, along with the additional challenge of having to complete a Citizenship Test. The test is something that I believe everyone should have to take before they are declared competent to vote. One must learn about the Constitution, how the Government is structured and operates, as well as a little American history. The test is given by an Immigration official and you must answer verbally – no fudging with multiple guess questions here. I have sat through many exams, but I don’t think I had ever uttered a sigh of relief at passing one before.
The Naturalization Ceremony was at once surreal and vivid. Like a graduating class, myself and my fellow New Americans, most of whom were of much darker complexions than I, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and cheered at our good fortune at being “chosen”. We all received our “graduation packet” – our Citizenship Certificate, a copy of the Constitution, a small American flag, and notes on how to register to vote. My neighbors and I – a woman from Iran and a man from Ethiopia – congratulated each other and compared our certificates giggling like children at the less-than-flattering mug shots displayed on the front. It was a moving, emotional day; we had all come so far, from many different circumstances and from all corners of the Earth, to sit in a nondescript building in the middle of a freeway, and know that our lives had irrevocably changed. I will never forget the feeling of camaraderie among my fellow immigrants, nor the realization that no matter who we were or where we came from or what God we worshipped, we could all finally embrace the American Dream.