My mom called me this weekend, and asked me if I had thought about my application for American citizenship yet. Honestly, I didn’t know and was caught off guard.
The rest of my family got their citizenship earlier this year after over a decade and a half of struggling through the outrageously complicated and inept American immigration system. I can’t believe it’s been about 18 years since I first arrived here in the States. Oh to go back to 1990. Disneyland, Southern California, Fourth Grade, being called “Oriental” and not understanding what that meant. Oh the innocence.
I’ve spent 13 of those 18 years in a state of limbo. For thirteen years I felt like neither a citizen of my own mother country (the Philippines) nor a citizen of my adopted country (the US). And through those years, I watched as Americans took that citizenship for granted every single day. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.” But can you imagine living in a state of being where that “liberty” could be taken away at a moment’s notice just because you weren’t born in a certain place? Can you imagine living in fear of having your life as you know it and liberty taken away by deportation?
During my senior year in college, INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services–now known as the Dept. of Homeland Security) threw away my application for residency because they thought it was a duplicate of my dad’s paperwork–he and I share the same first name. Prior to this unfortunate incident, I had no concept of our entire immigration process, and I think that was my parents’ call because they wanted to shield us from any unnecessary burden (I imagine it’s similar to not telling your kids about your financial situation so as not to worry them; and for that I thank my parents). Well, soon thereafter I was thrust into the entire immigration debacle because now that I didn’t have an application or any paperwork in process (it was sitting in some garbage bin at the INS office), I was technically not supposed to be in the United States. Here I was during my senior year in college trying to finish my classes after having been through a traumatic car accident months before, and I was meeting with lawyers, appearing in court, and being threatened with deportation. I don’t even know how I managed to finish out that school year.
But I thought about all of the Americans taking their citizenship for granted, and told myself that I would never settle and take things for granted like them. If I had to work twice as hard, ten times as hard, or even a hundred times harder, I would do it. After a half dozen court appearances (I will never forget that judge accusing me of lying on my college application about being an American citizen, and my parents and I literally running to USC’s admissions office between court sessions to get a copy of my application to see whether or not I did. Luckily, I left that question blank; I thank universities for admitting undocumented students and staying out of this country’s bullshit immigration policies), I proved to the judge that I was a real person (and not just a fake person trying to sneak into the country) and my residency was granted–a full year after my family’s was.
But words could not really convey what a nerve-wracking year that was. To have your life and liberty hanging on the very words of one judge is a torture I would not wish upon anyone. It was so nerve-wracking and disenchanting that as soon as I received my green card, all I wanted to do was leave the United States. So I left and went to Japan for a year.
And here I am now. Eighteen years since my arrival. Five years after receiving my residency. And I’m faced with another choice.
Do I want citizenship to this country? To the country that didn’t even believe I was a real person? To the country that wouldn’t give me financial aid for college? To the country filled with (and not dealing with) underlying race and class issues? To the country that educated me and gave me opportunities to grow and develop to be the man I am today?
I think a part of me hesitates because my lack of national identity has allowed me to identify as a citizen of the world–I like telling people that I’m NOT an American citizen. I like seeing the surprise and shock on their faces.
But I think I am ready now, and I want to be part of this mess that is America. I want to vote, and maybe I want to run for governor of California one day (I can’t run for president because you have to have been born in the States. Who came up with that silly rule?). I want to have an American passport so that I don’t have to apply for visas just to visit my relatives in Australia.
I want to be able to really bring America into my identity not because of convenience. Not because the rest of my family did it. Not because millions of people would kill for this spot. But because when I first came here, it wasn’t my choice. This time, it is my choice.
Come December 19, 2008, you will probably be looking at a brand new American.