By Natasha Hussain
July 31, 2019
I walked into the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services branch here on a hot afternoon two weeks ago. After passing through security, I entered a waiting room that looked like your average D.M.V. The majority of the people looked like me in that they were people of color, and they had come from a different part of the world.
There was a television mounted on the wall tuned to HGTV, but the volume was set so low it was only a buzz. A toddler cut the drone with her attempt to whisper-yell “Mama.” Maybe she was hungry or wet or tired. I was caught up in my own nerves. No one spoke louder than a whisper.
The couple in front of me paged through a binder checking once again that everything was in order: birth certificates, divorce decrees, marriage certificates, travel documents and every government letter issued during the years of the application process. My own binder held two inches of paperwork that I started amassing 881 days prior, right after the first “travel ban” was issued. That January 2017 I was visiting family in Canada, where I was born, having left my American-born husband and two children at home in Baltimore.
As a Canadian with a green card, I wouldn’t have been affected by the travel ban. But as a Muslim born to Pakistanis, I found it entirely possible that, amid the chaos of that time, an overwhelmed border agent might decide I was of dubious character and turn me back when I tried to return to my family in this country. Over those next few days while the courts debated its legality, the travel ban was temporarily lifted. I returned to America and immediately applied to become a citizen.
Sixteen years before, I had left Canada to attend M.I.T. for what I thought would be a brief and unparalleled opportunity to advance my education. I unexpectedly fell in love with a sharp and gentlemanly Virginian. My brief stay turned into a full life with him and our two children, and a fulfilling career as a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University. I had never considered applying for United States citizenship; my plan was to do what many Canadians living in America did: renew my green card decade after decade while maintaining my Canadian nationality.
But in the wake of the travel ban, that plan no longer seemed sound. I worried that I’d wake up one day to find my legal status revoked, my brown-skinned, Muslim self separated from family, friends and the very American life I feel fortunate to be living. This fear made me want to become a citizen, a fear that only grew in the 881 days it took for my application to make its way through the system. Now, as I sat in the waiting room, my apprehension was at its highest.
The night before, President Trump had instructed four black- and brown-skinned female congressional representatives to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.” Days later, he hurled an insult at Baltimore: “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” I wondered how many immigration officers in Baltimore and in other American cities, agreed with those words and felt empowered by them. I hoped the officer I was about to meet did not.
My name was called and I was led back through a hallway into an office where a soft-spoken African-American man in a suit sat behind a desk with his computer screen turned from my view. He began questioning the basic facts listed in my citizenship application, a serious exchange designed to frame the entirety of my life in under 15 minutes. Next was the citizenship test, 10 questions selected from a pool of 100. He asked: “What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States? How many voting members are in the House of Representatives? Eisenhower was a general in which war?” I had studied and prepared well. I passed the test.
Two days later, I returned to the Citizenship and Immigration Services waiting room for the naturalization ceremony. The official running the ceremony was a Puerto Rican who greeted us by saying, “Congratulations! This afternoon you will all become American citizens! The hard part is behind you. Give yourselves a round of applause!”
He bubbled over with a contagious enthusiasm. I got carried away in the moment, and clapped right along. The 45 of us stood in turn as the official called out our nations of origin — together we came from 27 different countries. Then, after we sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, we were pronounced full-fledged citizens.
It was surreal, and almost voyeuristic. I felt as if I was watching the scene unfold at a distance. The official motioned to the TV monitors before us. The screen flipped from a static image of the American flag to a video clip of President Trump in a blue suit and striped tie. He welcomed us “into the American family,” saying, “No matter where you come from, or what faith you practice, this country is now your country.” He added, “You enjoy the full rights, and the sacred duties that come with American citizenship — very, very special.”
But I didn’t feel special, not at this moment. I felt complicated, poisoned and contradictory. I hoped that becoming a citizen would provide me a solid sense of security, an unquestionable right to live in America and participate in its democracy. It did not.
I am a citizen, yes. But I am also a brown-skinned Muslim woman who looks like the members of “the squad” whom President Trump told to go back to where they came from. I live in Baltimore, a place the president calls “dangerous and filthy.”
Looking at the beaming new citizens around me, I wondered what their physical journeys might have been, how arduously they’d worked to finally reach that moment. I felt a creeping sense of guilt that I had neither journeyed far nor struggled deeply. But more than anything else, I felt resentful that the circumstances of the week had marred the achievement of all of us, and undermined what I thought it meant to be a citizen.
When I officially became an American, a kind friend wrote me a congratulatory note that said: “Welcome to the struggle :) May this country be for you what it aspires to be for all people — a place of freedom and opportunity.” It might take more than aspiration for this to stay true.
That steamy afternoon when I took my citizenship test, I hoped one of the questions would be, “What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?” According to my study packet, there are 10 precisely worded answers that are acceptable for this question, including “join a political party,” “publicly support or oppose an issue or policy,” “vote” and “write to a newspaper.”
Source: The New York Times