Josna Rege

411. C is for Citizen[ship]

In blogs and blogging, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 4, 2019 at 10:03 pm

I waited a long time, probably too long, to apply to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. It was made possible by my dear friend Paulette (may she rest in peace), an immigration lawyer who couldn’t wait for me to become a citizen so that I could get involved in our local town government. She came over and walked me through the formidable paperwork in exchange for tea and scones, and then tracked the application as it moved sluggishly through the process, getting mysteriously lost in a depository deep in the Midwest for several months before I was finally called in for fingerprinting, then my citizenship test and interview and finally, the swearing-in, for which I had to travel to Boston. There were thousands of people in the Hynes Convention Center, which wasn’t very personal, but there was one high point. I was feeling pangs of loss and uncertainty as the imminent prospect of taking an oath of allegiance to the most powerful state in the world (had I made the right decision?), when the presiding judge started speaking to us.

“You don’t need to give anything up,” she said, in gentle tones. “All the wealth of culture and experience you bring to this country, we embrace it. It enriches us beyond measure.”

Boy, had she said the right thing at the right moment! Relief flooded through me as I relaxed and entered into the ceremony, surrounded by new Americans from absolutely everywhere, all over the world.

I can’t say that my move to take on U.S. citizenship was made entirely out of choice. The aftermath of the September 11th attacks was a time of great vulnerability for non-citizens. The law provides for interior border checkpoints to be set up within 100 miles of the Canadian border, and at the time, I worked in New Hampshire which, as it turned out, was within that zone, with provisions for “expedited removals” if anyone picked up is found to be traveling without the proper paperwork. As I drove home from work every week, I started getting stopped on a regular basis, until it didn’t seem like a coincidence any more. The first time was the most frightening, because I didn’t have my green card with me, and they took me into a trailer while they looked me up on a computer and issued me with dire warnings. All my protestations that I was a college professor didn’t matter one bit to them. I was just an alien without the proper papers.

It wasn’t just the insecurity, though. I had been feeling ashamed of myself, especially since my son was now old enough to vote while I, for all my social consciousness, still hadn’t taken the steps to do so. But now, 10 years later, I don’t think that I needed to have felt that shame, because citizenship is not measured solely in terms of allegiance to a state. Another thing that had been increasingly getting my goat was the way I was treated when  I came back into the country after a trip abroad. A U.S. customs officer would look at my green card, look back at me, give a loud sniff, and ask me why I hadn’t yet become a citizen. I was hurt and offended by  that; they had no right to pass judgement on something that was such a personal decision.

True, I hadn’t rushed to apply for a U.S. passport (okay, I was slow—it took me 39 years!). But I had been a good citizen all along. I firmly believe that contributing to your society is good citizenship, in the workplace, in the local community, at the national level, and beyond. There is environmental citizenship, working to protect our environment at both the personal and political level; and global citizenship, recognizing that our responsibilities to our fellow human beings don’t stop at the borders of the nation in which we happen to live. As for national citizenship, long before I held a U.S. passport, I was an active participant in civic life. And I certainly wasn’t getting a free ride.

Many Americans don’t realize that non-citizens pay taxes just the same as they do– local, state, and federal taxes. I had been working and paying into the system since the very first summer after I arrived in the country. Even undocumented immigrants pay taxes, more than 20 billion dollars in 2015 alone. Doesn’t that take some of the air out of the argument that they ought not to be eligible for any government services?

Something many Americans don’t realize is that most of the rights and protections enshrined in the United States Constitution include all those who are living in the country, not only those who are U.S. citizens. Read the Bill of Rights, and look for the word citizen in it. Freedom of speech, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, due process of the law—all these apply to “the people.” Most constitutional legal scholars agree that non-citizens, even undocumented Americans, are included in “the people”.

My first trip out of the country as a U.S. citizen was a blissful holiday with my family to Tobago. After a week of lolling on the beach, paddling lazily in the shallows, and feasting on fresh fish and mangoes in the sleepy village of Castara on the Caribbean coast, we returned to the super-charged Miami International Airport, which seemed to me to be bristling with armed police. Habitually tense when re-entering the country, I waited in line, clutching my brand-new passport, for my turn to speak to the young customs agent. When I stepped up and duly handed it to him, he studied it long and hard, and then suddenly broke into an easy, all-American grin. “Welcome home!” he said.

Boy, was that a surprise!

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Citizenship is such a personal matter. I never had to choose but I have many friends who had to make a choice about their citizenship. For example, I have a friend whose father is Italian and mother is German. She was born in Italy, so she has an Italian passport, and although she’s been living in Germany for more than 20 years now, she hasn’t relinquished her Italian passport because she doesn’t want to relinquish her Italian nationality, what she wants is that her German nationality would be recognised too.

    Often people seem to think that nationality is a matter of paperwork. It is, I believe, a matter of heart.

    PS: Sorry I disappered. The challenge was particularly hard on me this year and I didn’t manage to keep up with fellow bloggers. But I’m trying to catch up 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for this! I agree, citizenship is very much “a matter of the heart ” (as well as a matter of Kafkaesque paperwork!).
      I am sorry I disappeared to. I feel behind, but there wass niother reason; I couldn’t post comments on your blig. I don;t have a gmail account and it wouldn’t allow me to post using my WordPress account or just my name and website address. Do you have any suggestions? I loved your posts and wanted to tell you so.

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      • Correction: I just successfully posted a comment on your blog! So in the coming days I will return to read more of your fascinating posts.

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  2. I enjoyed reading your story. I struggle with the current challenges national identity and citizenship have created for so many, and truly wish we were united enough to recognize global citizenship.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for visiting and posting your comment, Deborah. Yes, national belonging and citizenship may be simply taken for granted for many who were born and raised in the country in which they live; but for those who are excluded or whose acceptance is conditional, it can be a constant source of a struggle and stress. Maybe it’s healthier to remember how new and how artificial these identities are.
      Perhaps global crises will force us into global cooperation, rather than into competition for ever-scarcer resources. At least we can cultivate global citizenship; over time it may come to feel natural . Here’s something on the subject I found for my students: https://www.wikihow.com/Be-a-World-Citizen.
      J

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  3. Citizenship and nationality are such odd things that we somehow need to attach to our identity.I’m glad to hear you’ve had positive experiences in the receiving and checking of your US passport!

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  4. How did they change the laws after the fact?! Crazy! But that’s what the British tried to do, to their post-WWII immigrants from the colonies, didn’t they? After 1948 all British colonial subjects were automatically eligible to live in Britain, until the 1960s and 1970s, when the “Mother Country” decided that she didn’t need their cheap labor anymore, tightened the laws and even entertained the idea of “repatriating” them. It must have been a strange experience to be being “naturalized” when you’d felt perfectly natural all along.

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    • I was born in the UK and thus a British Citizen, but my Anglo-Indian mother (she hated to be characterised this, but she was) was only a British Subject. In the late 1970s after my father died for some reason (getting a passport to visit Canada I believe) she had to go through the rigmarole of having her status changed, to her disgust.

      What you describe was exactly her experience. The lurch towards the far right in the US and the UK is so worrying, and if Britain leaves the EU I can see officials at passport control here being as suspicious, even aggressive, as I know US Customs are often reputed to be towards anybody not fitting the Caucasian template.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ugh. All citizens are equal but . . . I believe that Anglo-Indians coming to Britain after Independence often felt betrayed; like your mother. As did British subjects from Uganda; after they had been expelled from their country, Britain tried to rush through a more restrictive immigration law that would exclude them. I was going to write a paragraph about second-class citizenship and another about contingent citizenship, but ran out of steam. Thank you so much for visiting and posting such interesting comments.

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  5. In 1954, when I migrated from England to Australia, all citizens of Australia who were British citizens, were accepted as being Australian citizens. Then somewhere along the way – I don’t even know when it was – Australia passed laws that said we had to be naturalised to become Australian . I didn’t know this until the late 1990s, and when I found that out, I applied to become an Aussie and was made a citizen at a ceremony with others in 1989. That’s 35 years after we arrived; I was 40 years old.

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  6. I have a cousin who married a Canadian, raised her children in Canada. And just like you, didn’t become a citizen of Canada until she’d been living there over 30 years.

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