Voices: The joyous highs and problematic lows of finally becoming an American citizen

·5-min read
I never really thought about being French — and then all of a sudden I was becoming an American  (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
I never really thought about being French — and then all of a sudden I was becoming an American (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The immigration services building in downtown Manhattan doesn’t look like a place where long-held hopes and dreams come true. It’s a towering, 41-story-high behemoth. It makes you feel a specific kind of small, the way only skyscrapers can.

If you’re an immigrant in New York City, you will have visited the Jacob K Javits Federal Building, as it’s known among fans, a number of times. Unless you have nerves of absolute steel, you will feel some amount of stress at the mere mention of 26 Federal Plaza, where this charming landmark is located. The immigration process, you see, is a convoluted one, and even formalities (such as getting your fingerprints taken) can necessitate jumping through a few logistical hoops.

But on Monday, I traveled to the Jacob K Javits Federal Building for a happy occasion. After seven years in the US, I stood in a room with a group of fellow applicants. I raised my right hand. I took an oath of allegiance. And just like that, I became a naturalized American citizen. Due to Covid, the ceremony was understated – my group took the oath via video link, while it was being administered in person in the room next door – but hey, the result is the same: I’m an American now! I can vote! I can stay here, with my husband and the people we love, for as long as I want!

Most people go their entire life without having to proactively commit to a country. They obtain citizenship through birth and/or parentage, and voila. I, for example, was born in France to French parents, and was thus a French citizen at birth. I’ve had thoughts about France, obviously, but until recently, I’d never had to weigh whether I wanted to remain French. I just was. It was a card I had been dealt, period.

I’ve known for several years that I would one day become eligible for US citizenship. Before Monday, I was a permanent resident, a.k.a a green card holder. It’s a pretty stable status, and one you can keep for a long time. (In the mythology of US immigration, the green card is a holy grail, because it gives you the right to stay in the US for at least 10 years, and you can work wherever you want, which isn’t the case if your visa is attached to your employer.) I wasn’t obliged to file for citizenship. I chose to. It was a decision I wrestled with for some time, but ultimately, it was the only thing that made sense.

My seven years in the US have been turbulent. And by turbulent, I mean “marked by political and social upheaval the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades”. When I moved to the US in July 2014, Barack Obama was still president. I received my first green card two weeks before Donald Trump won the 2016 election. It’s been, well, a journey, marked among other things by a pandemic and a deadly insurrection.

So, yes, there were times I wasn’t sure I wanted to file for citizenship of a country like the US. Why would I want to, when its political system kept failing to maintain basic levels of democracy; when it let powerful people off the hook time and time again, but disproportionately punished the less privileged; when even a passing glance at a newspaper brought to mind a question the writer Gabe Hudson is fond of asking on Twitter: “Seriously, does anybody know what the f*** is going on?”

The answer, obviously, isn’t that I stopped caring about all of these things, or that I suddenly became fine with our current state of affairs. So why did I decide to hitch my wagon to the good old US of A?

First, there were practical reasons. Renewing a green card (which you have to do every decade) used to be a formality, but during the Trump years, it seemed more like a lottery. Any immigrant status was suddenly much more fragile, and renewal couldn’t be taken for granted. I became tired of living with the latent anxiety that the life I have built here – and you can, as it turns out, build a whole lot of life in the span of seven years – would be taken away. I have a husband here (an American citizen himself), and an apartment, and a dog. This is my home. I wanted my status to reflect that.

There are also some major disadvantages to being a green card holder, as cushy a status as it is. You pay taxes just as if you are a US citizen, but you can’t vote. You can claim some public benefits, but not all. You can’t run for public office (not that I have any plans to, but it would be nice to have the option), you can’t apply for certain federal jobs, and you can’t stay out of the US for more than six months without losing your status. Some of these reasons had hardly any bearing on my decision to pursue citizenship; others — like being able to exercise a vote in the country in which I live — had much more.

Becoming an American doesn’t mean I automatically became a Stars and Stripes-waving patriot, however. I don’t think it’s ever good, or even possible, to love a country unreservedly. A wise man – who, adequately, happens to be American bestselling author Hank Green – once told me it’s vital that we be critical of the things that we love. I think about this sentence a lot, and I thought about it even more frequently in the lead-up to my naturalization.

I’m lucky to have received messages from my now-fellow Americans welcoming me to my new country (some tinged with understandable concern about the possibility that the US will become a hellscape we’ll need to escape from within the next decade.) And even the most comfortable immigration experience (I could afford an attorney, I had a clear path to residency and citizenship) can sometimes leave you feeling like an outsider. But there are so many people who, over the years I’ve spent in this country, have made me feel welcome here. And that means more than I could put into words.

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