Becoming American

posted 07 September 2018
A small american flag and a pink button saying 'freedom protector'

Today I became an American citizen.

The ceremony itself is, well, very American. Me and 854 other soon-to-be citizens assembled at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, clutching our precious green cards and the flimsy single-page letter we received in the mail saying we had passed all the tests needed to become citizens. As we filed in, a choir of elderly volunteers on stage sang various patriotic songs, with more enthusiasm than talent.

At the door, you hand them your green card -- a terrifying event; my green card is a precious document that cost me 5 years and well upwards of $25,000 in fees to acquire -- and in exchange you get a tiny American flag on a stick, and an envelope. In the hallway, a massive team of USCIS officials work in parallel to process all 855 applications at once, so that by the end of the ceremony they can hand you a certificate of naturalization.

A USCIS official who had obviously done this many, many times -- there are two ceremonies per month, and he looked like he'd worked there a long time -- ran through the program. We'd hear how to register to vote, how to update social security, how to apply for a passport. Then we'd be led through the Oath of Allegiance, which is the actual point at which you become legally a citizen. He encouraged people to feel free to clap and cheer, and the audience responded enthusiastically, frequently accompanied by waving all the little flags we'd been given.

He had a bunch of little jokes, obviously time-worn. He talked about all the countries participating, and rattled off welcomes in Spanish, then French, then -- prompting gasps of increasingly impressed surprise -- Chinese, Hindi and Taglog. These corresponded to the biggest countries of origin -- China was the biggest, then Mexico, Nicaragua, India, the Philippines and Canada. He listed all the countries participating in alphabetical order and got people to stand up when their country was called.

He thanked us for coming to America and strongly encouraged us to register to vote. He skirted as close as I can imagine he was professionally able to pointing out that America has a lot of problems right now, and a bunch of new voters might go some way to fixing that.

Then somebody came on and sung the national anthem -- we were encouraged, but not required, to sing along, and the crowd enthusiastically joined in -- and then we administered the oath, which took all of 45 seconds. Then a second, even shorter oath for those who intended to apply for a passport that day. Then a video message from Madeleine Albright, talking about how proud she was to have risen from refugee to Secretary of State, a second video from Donald Trump, who unconvincingly espoused the virtues of immigration, and then another very patriotic video of multi-cultural people waving flags.

Then they played "Proud to be an American", which is an aggressively condescending and arrogant song, but yet again most of the crowd sang along enthusiastically. Then the officials who'd been frantically printing certificates in the hall filed in and very efficiently handed them out. There was a lot of cheering, more flag waving, tons of selfies. And that, about 2 hours after we'd started, was that.

The ambivalent American

Growing up in my family, America was not the shining land of the free. Americans, according to my family, were definitely The Worst. They were loud, boorish, arrogant, rude, uncultured. My family, who watch every televised sporting event of any kind up to and including sheep herding trials, would not watch American football, baseball, or basketball. Liking American TV and movies was considered letting people down. As a child, even liking Mickey Mouse was considered shamefully unpatriotic.

But of course we did watch American movies and TV, because that was most of what was available. We consumed American culture while vilifying Americans all the while. There was no shortage of hypocrisy in this.

But the rest of the world and especially the Caribbean has a lot of very justifiable reasons to be unenthusiastic about American hegemony. American drug policy is responsible for political and economic disaster across all the countries south of the border. American culture is, in fact, violent, materialistic, and full of unhealthy and contradictory messages about bodies, food, beauty, religion and more.

So when my career took me to America my family were genuinely aghast. You want to move to *America*? But there are Americans there! It'll be awful! How can you stand being surrounded by Americans all the time? I tried to explain that not all Americans are like the terrible Americans who take cheap vacations to the Caribbean, and that there are many parts of America that are beautiful and cultured. My family, whose primary experience of America is visiting some relatives of ours who live in south Florida, were unconvinced. America, as far as they were concerned, was an un-ending series of strip malls, shitty chain restaurant food, and rednecks.

I arrived in the USA in 2007, and worked hard as a volunteer to elect Barack Obama in 2008. Here was a vision of America I could be proud of: diverse, caring, cultured, humble and respectful of the rest of the world. Obama's presidency had a great number of flaws, but I was a fan all the way to the end.

Having originally planned to stay only a few years, I hung around. I swapped between a few visas and, after five years and a huge amount in lawyers fees mostly paid by my employers, acquired a green card. You have to wait 5 years after getting a green card to become a citizen, so I had a few years to decide if, in far-off 2017, I wanted to become a US citizen.

Then the 2016 election happened.

A flight to safety

A week after becoming president, Trump signed Executive Order 13769, usually called the Muslim Ban. Quite apart from the horrifically cruel and transparently bigoted nature of the order, it included a side-effect that was particularly horrifying to green card holders: the ban apparently applied to us too. Green-card holders were initially denied entry. Some were coerced into signing documents that forced them to relinquish their precious green cards.

After fighting so hard and so long to get our green cards, the idea that they could be stripped away was unprecedented, shocking, and filled me and my fellows with fear. There was a mad rush to apply for citizenship. Green card holders who'd been sitting on the cards for years not applying for citizenship suddenly were desperate for the additional security it afforded. Unable to apply until August 2017, I watched helplessly as the queue for citizenship lengthened from 3 months to a year. Equally fearful, I applied as soon as I could.

So now I find myself a citizen. It's a hard time to feel excited about that. The country is sliding into fascism (though in fairness so apparently is much of Europe). Inequality is rising. Racial injustice is omnipresent -- though, again in fairness, it was always there and has just recently become visible. There is much that is broken about America.

It would be easy to rationalize my citizenship to myself and my now even more horrified family as a mere administrative convenience, a security device to keep this dangerously capricious administration from summarily deporting me. But easy as that would be, it would be false.

More American than I thought

There is, as I kept telling my family, a lot to like about America. There's natural beauty, friendly people, culture. There is a sense of possibility, an openness to trying new things that I never found in the seven years I lived in the UK. There's institutions and a respect for the rule of law that Trinidad, though it will always be home to me, increasingly lacks.

There's potential to America, potential it's not currently living up to, but that remains tantalizingly close. A new generation are rising who genuinely value the diversity that makes America better, who understand that there is virtue and strength in taking from the richest to help the poorest, who realize systems like healthcare and gun laws that make America a horrifying outlier amongst rich nations can be changed for the better.

The day after the election, I was walking through downtown San Francisco and passed through one of the many spontaneous protests that were happening that week. A woman in the crowd handed me the small pink button in the picture above. It says "freedom protector". You're supposed to wear it to indicate that you will fight to keep others safe. I knew I couldn't wear it, because I couldn't fight. Even being near a protest was a risky thing for a green card holder.

But I held onto it. I kept it in the pocket of my favorite hoodie like a talisman, for the 21 long months between the nightmare of election night and today being finally safe from the whims of a dangerously unhinged executive. I was not a freedom protector, but that was the day that I decided I wanted to be. Tomorrow I get to wear the badge. Finally safe, tomorrow I can start protecting others.

I haven't become American just to stay safe. I've become American because after 11 years, Americanness has seeped into me. I'm choosing to be here because I want to help. I'm choosing to be here because I am, no matter how bad things are right now, fundamentally optimistic about the future of the country. I think America can be better, and I think I can do something about that. And that's a very American way to think.