Who knew that applying for citizenship would require me to swear I'm not a torturer or a gambler, submit a photo with my "right ear showing" and write "I am wearing a brown jacket" even though I was wearing a green one?
This Fourth of July will be the fifth I have celebrated as an American citizen. This year, as in years past, as I sit around the barbecue to celebrate this country’s independence, I will no doubt entertain a few more people with the true story of the bizarre civic procedures I followed in order to become a citizen.
I was a Canadian (and am still considered one in Canada, where dual citizenship applies). I paid my taxes, held a steady job and was generally considered a nice person. I had moved to California in 1978. After residing here as a legal alien for 15 years, I wanted to vote. I wasn’t moving back to Canada anytime soon, so I figured I should become a bona fide American, with all the related privileges (like jury duty).
In the process of applying for citizenship, I was asked by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to swear on three forms, on three occasions and in three locations, that I wasn’t a communist. I also checked boxes swearing that I was not a Nazi, prostitute, torturer, habitual drunkard or illegal gambler, among other occupations.
The first time I was asked these questions was on the form I mailed on Sept. 29, 1993, with my photo (right ear showing, as the INS requested) and an $85 application fee. One year later, almost to the day, I was called in to the offices of the INS in downtown San Jose, Calif., for an interview.
The waiting room, with its institutional, colorless walls and linoleum floor, was packed with other aliens; every plastic chair was taken. I used the time to review a heavily photocopied sheet the INS had sent me, listing 100 typical questions and answers about the United States. “What do we call a change to the Constitution?” (an amendment); “Who said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’?” (Patrick Henry); and the brain-buster, “Where is the White House located?”
After half an hour, my name was called. I followed a uniformed young woman down a maze of hallways into her drab cubicle. With no preamble, she shot out several questions. Had I ever received a speeding ticket? (Yes.) Did I pay it? (Yes.) Did I pay my taxes? (Yes.) Which three presidents were assassinated? (Kennedy, Lincoln and Garfield.) How many members of Congress are there? (I forgot.)
Next she asked me to write the sentence, “I am wearing a brown jacket.” I was suspicious of the simplicity of the request. Was it a trick, since I was wearing a green jacket? Should I write “green” instead of “brown”? Would I be lying under oath if I wrote “brown”? Eventually I realized that she was just testing me for English skills. I wrote the sentence the way she said it. I felt sheepish showing her such a simple line. She took my piece of paper and nodded.
Then she handed me a new form. It was exactly the same list about whether I was a communist, Nazi, torturer and so on. I checked the “no” boxes and signed it. I was free to go.
Two weeks later, at 8 a.m., I joined nearly 1,000 shivering legal aliens from 100 countries in a line that wrapped around the San Jose Civic Auditorium. We stood patiently in the cold — grandmothers, businesspeople and babies, from all races and economic levels. Once I was inside, a worker handed me a piece of paper. It was the form again, reduced to a few questions, including whether I was a communist! No, I checked. No, no, no. Was it possible to become a communist in only two weeks? I wondered. Surely it took longer.
Reluctantly, I relinquished the green, plasticized alien card I had carried with me “at all times.” I felt naked without it. Over the years, it had become part of me in a secret kind of way, hidden in my wallet, always letting me know that I was different. In exchange, I received a certificate of citizenship, a form letter from President Clinton, material from the League of Women Voters on how to register to vote and a booklet containing the Constitution and a few pages of patriotic writings.
Civil servants herded us into a large hall and seated us. My fellow aliens and I politely listened to a speech by a judge about the joys of jury duty. Eventually, the audience was instructed to rise. Led by a speaker, we collectively denounced our countries of origin and agreed to take up arms against them. We were pronounced U.S. citizens. Someone near the front waved a tiny American flag. A few camera bulbs flashed.
I now had the right to serve on a jury, vote and work for the government. Fortunately, I don’t need food stamps, but at least I’m eligible.
Back at work, I walked down the hall to my office as though it were any other day. I had told only one person why I would be late. Suddenly a door opened and a group of 20 co-workers burst into an off-key but moving rendition of “America the Beautiful.” My office was a blizzard of red, white and blue streamers, flags and other Americana. Someone had baked an apple pie. We had a small party, dividing up the pie and laughing. I opened gifts and cards. My becoming an American seemed to mean something to them. I was touched.
That evening I asked my husband to take me to the Hard Rock Cafe for a hamburger, fries and a Coke. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Dianne Jacob is a writer and editor in Oakland, Calif. More Dianne Jacob.
More Related Stories
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
- Stephen Colbert to UVA: "You must always make the path for yourself"
- "Game of Thrones," season 3, episode 8: A salon
- Bieber booed, Miguel falls on fan at Billboard Awards
- "Mad Men" recap: Love, acid and whores. Lots of whores
- Taylor Swift leads Billboard winners
- “Game of Thrones” recap: “We must do our duty”
- "The Unwinding": What's gone wrong with America
- Michael J. Fox wins: The best and worst of the new fall shows
- First look: The Coens' marvelous folk-music odyssey
- New York's most persecuted subway artist?
- James Franco: "I really felt I was in conversation with Faulkner"
- "Jodorowsky's Dune": The sci-fi classic that never was
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11