Why I be­came a U.S. cit­i­zen — and why it took so long

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - OPINION -

I be­came a U.S. cit­i­zen in 2012, 10 years af­ter I had be­come a per­ma­nent res­i­dent, and 22 af­ter I first ar­rived in the United States. Today, as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ques­tions what it means to be a cit­i­zen, I won­der: Why did it take me so long?

I could have be­come a cit­i­zen much ear­lier, shortly af­ter I mar­ried my hus­band, an Amer­i­can, in 1998. But at the time, my im­me­di­ate con­cern was be­ing able to work, and the green card I got through mar­riage granted me that op­tion. And, in all hon­esty, I had no in­ter­est in be­com­ing a cit­i­zen. I had spent all my child­hood and ado­les­cence in South Amer­ica, and, de­spite be­ing quite ac­cul­tur­ated, I did not feel like I was an Amer­i­can.

In ret­ro­spect, this en­ti­tled at­ti­tude dripped of priv­i­lege and his­tor­i­cal naivete. I was young, healthy and the ben­e­fi­ciary of an ex­cel­lent Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tion that af­forded me great job op­por­tu­ni­ties. Had I been in a more pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion — for ex­am­ple, in a low-pay­ing job and with chil­dren to sup­port or with a chronic med­i­cal con­di­tion need­ing health care — I would have prob­a­bly been more aware of the ben­e­fits that come with cit­i­zen­ship.

But I am even more ashamed of my ig­no­rance about the his­tory of cit­i­zen­ship in the U.S. and the strug­gle that African Amer­i­cans, Mex­i­can Amer­i­cans, Chi­nese Amer­i­cans and women, to name a few, fought to gain full cit­i­zen­ship — cit­i­zen­ship not only on pa­per, but in re­al­ity. I did not know then about the 1790 Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Act that re­stricted cit­i­zen­ship to “any alien, be­ing a free white per­son”; the strug­gle to pass and en­force the Four­teenth Amend­ment fol­low­ing the Civil War; the stain to Amer­i­can ideals of the Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act of 1882; and the Ex­pa­tri­a­tion Act of 1907, which stated that women, but not men, who mar­ried a non-Amer­i­can lost their U.S. cit­i­zen­ship. I took cit­i­zen­ship lightly and for granted.

There were two things that led me to be­come a U.S. cit­i­zen. The first was want­ing to vote. I had not been able to vote in the his­toric 2008 elec­tion, and I did not want to miss my last chance to cast a vote for Barack Obama.

The sec­ond was hav­ing chil­dren in the U.S. In 2012, my boys were 10, 8 and 6 years old, and al­though I spoke Span­ish to them and tried to in­still in them a love of my cul­ture and coun­try, it was clear that they were first and fore­most Amer­i­can — and I re­al­ized that this was a very good thing. In school, they learned (and I with them) about the mag­nif­i­cent ideals of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion — free­dom, equal­ity, op­por­tu­nity — and I could tell that they felt that they could do any­thing. They had the op­ti­mism of be­ing Amer­i­can.

This was in­cred­i­ble to me. Grow­ing up in Latin Amer­ica un­der dic­ta­tor­ships and pe­ri­ods of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, and wit­ness­ing enor­mous dis­par­i­ties in wealth, I was a lit­tle more cyn­i­cal — maybe even de­featist — about the pos­si­bil­ity of chang­ing any­thing, es­pe­cially by those not in power.

I be­gan to dis­cover and deeply ad­mire the “can do” at­ti­tude of my Amer­i­can friends. I re­mem­ber meet­ing a mother in my chil­dren's preschool who was out­raged at the lack of early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams in a poor Bal­ti­more neigh­bor­hood and sprightly told me that she was work­ing to es­tab­lish a new char­ter school for un­der­served kids by the next year. “You can do that?” I asked her per­plexed. The idea that reg­u­lar cit­i­zens could chal­lenge the sys­tem and try to fix the prob­lem blew my mind. This was some­thing I be­lieved in, and I de­cided I wanted to be an Amer­i­can.

When I heard that Pres­i­dent Trump was ques­tion­ing birthright cit­i­zen­ship on my way to work the other day, then, I had to pull my car over to process my grief, anger and dis­ap­point­ment.

I am fully aware that this coun­try still has a long way to go to ful­fill the Amer­i­can ideals of free­dom, equal­ity and op­por­tu­nity, es­pe­cially for peo­ple of color, gen­der and sex­ual mi­nori­ties, the poor and even women. But rais­ing the ques­tion of birthright cit­i­zen­ship on the week when two African Amer­i­cans were mur­dered in a gro­cery store, pipe bombs were sent to pub­lic fig­ures, an an­tiSemitic at­tack at the Tree of Life Con­gre­ga­tion in Pitts­burgh left 11 dead, and thou­sands of fed­eral troops are be­ing de­ployed to the south­ern bor­der to pre­vent an “in­va­sion” of peo­ple flee­ing vi­o­lence and per­se­cu­tion in Hon­duras, left me griev­ing not only for the vic­tims of th­ese at­tacks, but for the hun­dreds of thou­sands who gave up their lives for free­dom and jus­tice through­out U.S. his­tory and the death of the ideals that make me so proud to be an Amer­i­can.

I am dev­as­tated, and I am feel­ing pow­er­less. But I am also so very thank­ful that at least I can vote, for my­self, the fu­ture of my chil­dren and the chil­dren of all im­mi­grants, and for the rights of those who could not vote on Tuesday.

Dr. Kath­leen Page is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity School of Medicine and co-di­rec­tor of Cen­tro SOL. She wrote this for the Bal­ti­more Sun.

Kin Man Hui / San An­to­nio Ex­press-News

New, young Amer­i­can cit­i­zens wave flags af­ter tak­ing the Oath of Al­le­giance.

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