On becoming a U.S. citizen

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This post was originally written in November of 2015

I received my U.S. passport a few days ago, 5 weeks after I attended the citizenship oath ceremony, 6 months after I submitted the initial paperwork, and 10 years after I moved from Peru, where I grew up.

I came to the U.S. under privileged circumstances, in order to pursue my first masters degree. I was not rejected from my home country by poverty or violence, I was not responsible for supporting a family, and I was not trying to escape anything other than some of my inner demons. However, moving to a country with a different language and a different culture, where I had no close bonds, was a very scary, uncertain and open-ended life-changing decision.

Despite my attempts to minimize it, I realize that becoming a U.S. citizen is also a big step. Life did not change after the oath ceremony and I still keep my Peruvian citizenship, but I have been thinking about the meaning of this transition for me.

The process of becoming a citizen of the U.S. is, paradoxically, foreign for most U.S. citizens. My hope is that sharing my experience can be helpful to incite curiosity, the necessary precursor of empathy, which sadly appears to be so scarce these days.

The Process

In case you have not had to request to become a U.S. citizen, the process (for a Green Card holder like I was) has four steps: sending an application and payment, getting fingerprinted, going through an interview and test, and attending an oath ceremony.

All the paperwork went smoothly, I felt the test was easy and I was interviewed by a tall and jolly African American man. The oath ceremony made the process more tangible because it was not just me, but I was part of a large group. It took place at a building in downtown Chicago, in a courtroom on the 25th floor. I arrived half hour early. I was told the process would take about two hours, but the actual ceremony would take less than 30 minutes. The rest of the time we all had to wait.

The Wait

When I got to the 25th floor, there were already about 100 people standing on both sides of a long aisle outside of the courtroom. Those applying for citizenship on the left, their guests on the right. In front of me, a young woman from India or Pakistan tried to soothe her toddler. Behind me, a middle aged woman tried to explain to her father what was going on, in what could be Turkish or Hungarian.

140 people became U.S. citizens in Chicago that Thursday, 140 fellow travelers who happened to cross paths that day for a couple of hours. I felt overwhelmed when someone told us that there were 45 countries represented in the room that day. The U.S. is far from perfect, but I cannot imagine any other place where people from all around the world would choose to belong.

I became more overwhelmed when I started thinking about the journey each of us had to go through to arrive at that moment. Each person in the room had a personal story filled with challenges and victories, fears and joys, realities and fantasies, loss and hope.

How many of them chose to join this country to be their true selves? How many came to become someone they could not be elsewhere? How many saw this as the only chance to break free from intergenerational trauma and hardship? How many were escaping from the tyranny of their government or their families? How many experienced their path to citizenship as a hurdle race, tinted by hopelessness and fear? How many can finally reunite with their families and how many were leaving their children behind?

Thinking about these things helped me understand that diversity is not an objective measure of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or other dimensions. More importantly, I believe diversity is about the diversity of human experience and personal meaning, the path each of us had to go through and how we made sense of it all. The people in that room were less defined by their country of origin than by their journeys and their dreams.

The tension continued to grow as we waited, even though there were no risks at this point. Most of us were sitting on long wood benches, and hardly anyone smiled or spoke to each other. The only ones who seemed excited were the guests, sitting on the sides of the room. We were all listening to the instructions an older gentleman was offering. "Do not take any pictures unless the judge says it's ok," he warned us about fifty times.

The Judge

After about an hour of waiting, right on time, our judge walked into the room with a stern expression on his face. I did not expect what happened next.

He told us that at the end of the ceremony he would say "Welcome to America" and he wanted us to clap. "Let's rehearse one time," he said, "Welcome to America!"

We clapped.

"No, no, no, that's not good enough," he quipped and we all laughed. "I will give you a second chance: Welcome to America!"

We clapped louder and some people cheered.

"No, no, that is still not enough," he said, "I want this whole building to wonder what's going on in this room."

We did it a third time and the room was ecstatic. "That's more like it...now we can begin."

This wise judge knew that he needed to break the tension in order for us to really listen to his words and take them in. I also get the feeling that he was grateful to be presiding the ceremony. "I will stay at the end if you want to take pictures with me. I will stay for as long as you need me to," he added. The man had just won the crowd.

He told us about how his own family immigrated to the U.S. generations ago, and asked us to keep in mind a few things as we went through this process. One of them stood out for me, which I remember like this:

Even though today you pledged allegiance to the U.S., please do not forget your origins and your culture. It is because of your culture that we welcome you. It is your own culture what you can contribute to make this country great.

I felt very touched by his remarks, and I am sure I was not the only one in the room who felt that way. In the context of the vitriolic and horrifying rhetoric we have been hearing against immigrants lately, these words were not only a breeze of fresh air but a shimmer of hope.

We were fortunate to have this judge in our ceremony and I regret not remembering his name. However, I overcame my natural aversion to asking people to take pictures of me and joined those who stayed in the room, as long as it took, to take a snapshot with the man who made this an even more special afternoon.

Santiago Delboy