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April 18, 2014 2:08 PM Becoming An American

By Henry Farrell

I became a US citizen earlier today.

Most native-born Americans have relatively little interaction with the immigration services. It might come as a relief to those of you who worry about the reputation of the US for racism that even for many of us who are white, well-educated, male, native-English speakers, most of our interactions with the immigration services are quite unpleasant. In my case the worst was being interrogated by an armed man for several hours shortly after arriving at an airport in Pennsylvania about one month post-9/11 and being threatened first with permanent deportation, and then with imprisonment without trial (fortunately, I did not yet know enough about what was possible to take the latter threat seriously); my offense was green-card related, but most of the interview, including the threats, was conducted after the official had already acknowledged to me that I had, in fact, not broken the conditions on the green card. Most other interactions have fallen on a spectrum ranging from hostility to extreme surliness. I remember how good it felt, once, re-entering the US to a greeting of “welcome home” from an immigration officer.

So I didn’t expect that this was going to be a pleasant experience. It has involved three drives to Milwaukee (actually, I love Milwaukee, and welcome any opportunity to go there,—going for 10 minute appointments, though, is non-ideal), the first for fingerprints, the second for the interview, and today’s for the ceremony. In fact, it has been as close to delightful as I could have wished. The fingerprint man chatted away about his daughter’s decision to colour her hair purple. The woman who interviewed me was amused that the magistrate’s court where I received my only criminal conviction has lost its records, and that the police station from which I was released after my only other arrest was uncontactable by email or phone (they did, eventually, respond to my hard-copy letter, telling me that they had passed it on to the LAPD central office—I have heard nothing more); she seemed to regard the nature of the arrests (Miners Strike 1985; Justice for Janitors 1991) as an asset. I anticipated today’s ceremony being transactional at best. There were 80 of us and, while I was alone [1], everyone else had family with them; so, due to security measures of dubious worth, it took us over an hour to get into the Courthouse, so the ceremony began one hour late. But the officers of the court were in celebratory mood, and the judge made it clear that this was the most pleasant of all her duties. I was able, mercifully, to make the oath in good conscience; but the oath was not moving to me at all (and I do not think I was alone in that). Afterwards, once we had all officially become citizens, the judge kindly read the long list of 40 or so countries from which we all originated, asking us to raise our hands when our country was read out. She reminded us never to forget where we came from, and explained that we knew more about the politics, history, and law-making processes than most native-born Americans, but that we should feel that our customs and cultures are welcome as part of the country we have joined. Going through her list she stopped occasionally to greet people. There were more from Mexico than from any other country and when they raised their hands she looked one to another and said, warmly, “We’re so glad that you are here”.[3]

After the ceremony the Frenchman and his wife teased me about being British, and observed that now we are both American we could abandon our rivalry.

I’ve never felt allegiance to the people who rule Britain, so disavowing allegiance to them was no hardship. I’ll never feel American, I am pretty sure of that. But I don’t feel British either; I identify as English, and Wisconsinite. But when I hear my children sing first song below at school, I choke up, just as much as I would if I could ever hear them sing the one after it. Both songs, as Al Stewart would say, proving that most people never listen to the lyrics (or understand them when they do):

So, for now, with the blessing of the judge, a glass of vintage port, an episode of Dr. Who, then I’ll drift off to sleep listening to ISIHAC.

[1] A few days ago 2 of my students [2] joked that they would come for a ride to Milwaukee with me, and I ignored them, thinking they were joking, then panicked that I had been rude; but, mercifully, they had been joking, and introduced me to the term YOLO, which sums up pretty well the way I have not lived my life.

[2] Who could be the subjects of this discussion between Hardy and Steele. They have enthusiasm. Its nice.

[3] I was warned ahead of time about the most anxiety-provoking part of the whole thing—giving up your green card, after never being more than a few feet away from it for more than two decades. I warn anyone who takes this step—the moment of surrender is very traumatic.

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

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