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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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