Last week, after years of living in the United States as a permanent resident (commonly referred to as a “green card holder”), I took the oath and became a U.S. citizen.
I moved to the States at the start of 2008 and quickly acquired a work visa — one of the really nice O-1 visas for “extraordinary ability,” due to my writing resume. That visa process was stressful but ultimately rewarding — the National Writers Union wrote a letter to say that I am “one of the most knowledgeable writers of rock music alive today.”
When I got married, that three-year visa became a green card. That process was a different kind of stress and perhaps inevitably a more involved process because, rather than proving my ability to work at all, this time I was proving my specific earning power, plus the legitimacy of my marriage.
The last part was the easy bit; my marriage was for real then and it still is over a decade later. We already had a child together when going through the green card process. Still, we were relative newlyweds so the government insisted on checking in with us after a couple of years to make sure we were still married. We were, and we are.
So that was that. From 2010, I’ve been a green card holder and a legal permanent resident. The process was so in-depth, looking into my taxes/earnings, and also those of my wife’s family as they were sponsors, that it took a lot out of us. The relief when the green card was finalized was tangible. It was always my intention to become a citizen, but I needed to take a breath first.
Then life happened. I was building a career, one that I’m incredibly proud of. And my wife and I were/are raising a child. We moved states twice, first from Michigan to Colorado, then again to California where we live now. Then fucking Trump happened. The former president’s openly racist immigration policies made me feel uncomfortable about applying for citizenship during his administration or even talking about it. Now that I am a citizen and am protected by the same First Amendment as everyone else, I can say whatever I want about it.
And what I’ll say is: If I felt uncomfortable applying for citizenship under Trump, as a white, cis, straight, able-bodied man, how awful must it have been for other people? The man did his best to make people who don’t look like me feel unwelcome. Fuck him for that. We’re nothing if we don’t have empathy.
Also, COVID happened and the world ground to a halt for over two years. But still, pretty much immediately after President Biden’s inauguration, I submitted my application for naturalized citizenship. I haven’t committed any crimes, I’ve been continually working — my awesome immigration attorney in Long Beach didn’t foresee any issues and she was right.
What I did learn is this: People going through the naturalization process have to learn over 120 civics questions, and they are tested on up to 20 of them. I studied for months and was asked six. I got them all right, so on we went.
But I sincerely believe that, because of this, all naturalized citizens have a better handle on American history and the way the government functions than most (not all but most) born American citizens.
Also, they ask if you’ve ever been a nazi, and ever engaged in genocide or torture. Those were the easiest and fastest no’s I’ve ever spoken.
Paul Rogers is a writer and bassist, most recently with punk band The Wraith. He completed his naturalization process in 2007.
“I’d studied the U.S. civics questions and had my girlfriend test me on them etc., but the actual interview was a surprise,” he says. “I’d worn long sleeves for the occasion, but as soon as I entered the young immigration officer behind the desk said, ‘I see your tattoos. D’you like the Rollins Band?’ We then discussed punk rock for a few minutes before he asked me just one formal question: ‘What are the three colors in the U.S. flag?’ That would be the U.S. flag hanging behind him.”
Rogers, like myself, had a fairly event-less ride through the process. Speaking of the day of taking the oath, Rogers says:
“I’d shown up rather reluctantly (and hungover) for the mass swearing-in ceremony. But it proved both sobering and inspiring. You see, there were whole extended families there — perhaps economic and/or political refugees — who were all dressed up to the nines and literally in tears of joy and relief that their relative had gained citizenship and safety/security in the U.S. And there was me, lucky enough to have been born in a free democracy, just going through the motions. Really put things in perspective and made me appreciate my situation — as both a Brit and now an American — even more.”
I can relate. I’ve never been one for displays of patriotism or certainly nationalism. But cynicism can be a privilege and when you’re stood side by side with people who have had a much harder time getting through the process, who are beyond ecstatic to take the oath and wave the little flag that they genuinely present you with on the day, then it makes you think hard.
“For marginalized communities generally, I think it’s difficult to meet some of the O1B to Green Card to Naturalization criteria due to access and privilege, definitely including financial access, nepotism in entertainment, gender gap, what publications and opportunities are considered examples of extraordinary achievement in the arts and so on,” says Dani Oliva, founding partner of the Oliva Law Group and a naturalized citizen himself. “I have also heard from BIPOC clients that they get stopped for secondary inspection at the border, for example, due to their name being non-white.”
I’m now a U.S. citizen. I’m actually a dual citizen, and when it comes through I’ll be a dual passport holder, identifying as English-American. It feels monumental and like an achievement; I feel a sense of belonging that only people who have gone through the same process will understand. My home is truly my home.
But again, I know that other people have a harder time through no fault of their own and, as an American who feels duty-bound, I’ll never stop speaking up for them.
Note: Just as this column was being finished, news came through about the Supreme Court’s draft overturning Roe and decimating women’s rights. More on that in the next column, but as an American, I’ll never stop speaking up for women too.