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The day I said goodbye to a country I could no longer call home

What waiting for hours in a crowded courtroom to become a citizen taught me about America


Tithi Bhattacharya
September 27, 2015 3:30AM (UTC)

My journey to become a citizen in the United States of America was mercifully short and uneventful. After nearly a decade as a permanent resident I finally filed an application to become a U.S. citizen this spring. I had two reasons.

I was getting tired of the harassment, money and stress involved in applying for visas, documents I needed to go essentially anywhere outside of the United States. 

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Friends in countries I wanted to visit always faced the same intricate appeal from me: “Could you please send me your most personal details: copies of your passport, your bank statement, your utility bill —so I can prove to your immigration authorities that I actually know you, that I won’t linger in the country as a freeloader, and although I am only coming for two days and have the return ticket to prove it, I still need your testimony that I really do plan to leave.”

The "supporting documents" for my visa applications to certain European nations were often over 30 pages. 

A visa application is embedded in a framework where the applicant is forever a suspect, someone out to steal money, benefits and rights from lawful citizens of that country unless proven harmless.  Temporarily.  Until your next visa application.

My second reason for not applying for U.S. citizenship—the golden passport that grants you unrestricted, visa-free entry to most nations on Earth— was perhaps more complicated.

I did not want to think too deeply about not being an Indian citizen. 

Most of my childhood in India I had grown up among people who fought various injustices of the Indian State. The tricolor flag only evoked for me histories of dispossession of the Kashmiri people.  The nation and its symbols had proven their true worth to my generation on a winter’s day in 1992 when a gang of Hindu militants tore down a 13th century mosque and riots against Muslims flamed across the country in its aftermath. 

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So it was not the nation-state that made me hesitate.

But like many immigrants with complicated relationships to people and places "back home," India, for me, was never only a nation-state. 

It was a place of childhood rains, loves lost, and homes never to be stepped in; like the times they occupied, they were all gone. Taking on American citizenship seemed in a way to sever off, yet again, ties to such dark waters, to such luminous, delicate webs of stories.  So I hesitated.

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Then last year Narendra Modi was elected to head the Indian nation-state. My hesitation to adopt the symbols of a nation-state that sent drones to the Middle East ran up against being a citizen of a nation-state that was headed now by a man who had at many levels of government allowed and incited horrific acts of violence against Muslims.   

Unhappily, falteringly, I decided to apply for U.S. citizenship. 

At least I could now stop bothering my friends to vouch for me when I traveled. My family could pass through immigration together without me being plucked off like an exotic but troublesome weed.

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My application process was tedious but not too long.  I filed in March and I was called in for an interview in August.  It was a short interview conducted by a young woman who had a pennant from her university’s football team on her wall. 

I passed the interview.  The next step was to be a "loyalty oath ceremony" where I’d be sworn in as a U.S. citizen and get the all-powerful Naturalization Certificate.

These ceremonies are scheduled to maximize the number of people who are in that stage of the process—which is to say that they happen infrequently. So although you are allowed to reschedule, it is not wise to do so.  People’s jobs, access to housing and healthcare, depend on that Naturalization Certificate and no one can afford to dally with the American state. 

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The ceremonies happen in one location at a time in any given state and people have to drive to that location no matter where it is that they actually reside. Sometimes these drives are two to three  hours long.  The ceremonies almost always take place on work days, so immigrants have to negotiate with their workplaces to  attend them, organize childcare where needed and pray for good weather, a benign boss and a good neighbor who can pick up the kid from school in their stead. 

 The day of my loyalty ceremony dawned bright and hot.  I was lucky that it was scheduled to be in my own town—about a mile from my home. 

Big electronic signs had been installed on the roads, as during sports events, with the words "Naturalization Ceremony This Way." 

My first clue to what awaited ought to have been that the numerous ushers who were helping out in the parking lot were volunteers from the American Legion.  They were all veterans.

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The ceremony was being held in a school gymnasium, temporarily set up with room for a judge, a desk for immigration controls, and decked out with American flags and buntings. 

The ceremony was to start at 2:00 p.m.  Our letters said so. 

One hundred people, their families and friends had come, keeping that time in mind.  Nearly all of us got there by 1:30. 

Two Burmese women sat on either side of me. They spoke very little English, were housecleaners by profession and had driven three hours to be there. They were getting the day off from their company, but it was a day off without pay. They were both paid $7.50 an hour.

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We waited. The clock ticked on. It got hotter—it was 90 degrees outside.  The children, the bravest among us, began to cry, complain and voice what we all felt but didn’t dare say: “When can we go home?”

Finally the judge arrived at 3:00 p.m.—a full hour after the scheduled time. He was closely followed by a group of lovely young women, all white as far as I could tell, who, we were told, were a local vocalist group and  were going to provide the entertainment for the event. 

The judge had decided to push the ceremony back for an hour, without informing any of us, simply to fit the schedule of the choir.

He smiled at us—all 100 of us who had driven for hours to get there on time, who had thoughts of our children left behind, who had now waited for nearly two hours for the ceremony to start.

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The ceremony began.

Local dignitaries, the mayor, state senators, a representative of the Bar Association all gave speeches. 

All began by congratulating us on this hard journey that we had undertaken to reach this important day, and this promised land of opportunities. They all ended by reminding us of the responsibilities we now had as citizens: to protect and defend the United States and to be a model to our own communities. 

We were told that we were wonderful models already. We, as one speaker elegantly pointed out, “were all dressed nicely and none needed to pull up our pants.”

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We were reminded how lucky we were to be there, as the American flag represented “freedom and democracy” all over the world.  I did not have the opportunity to ask the man who said that which parts of the world he had traveled to, though I would be curious to hear where.

The vocalists started to sing. In dulcet tones and with beautiful smiles (they all  smiled uniformly throughout the performance) they told us:

From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli
We fight our country's battles, in the air, on land, and sea
First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean

Several of us waiting to be made citizens were from Mexico and from North African countries.  The words of the song were a kind reminder as to whose histories mattered today. It certainly was not ours.

The Burmese women sitting on both sides of me fidgeted a bit. They had now sat through nearly 50 minutes of constant talking in English, a language they didn’t speak.  But one of them pulled out a bag of candies and before offering it to her own friend or taking one herself, she offered it to me, the stranger she didn’t know. 

The ceremony ended with the judge telling us, for nearly 20 minutes, how America cared for children and tried its best to provide for every child.  My limited knowledge of current affairs told me that more than 16 million children in this country live in poverty. Maybe these records did not reach the judge beyond the music of the smiling choir. 

And so we became citizens.

Did it have to be this way?

Could not the authority figures have entrusted this group of immigrants with the responsibility that James Baldwin had once entrusted his nephew—“to make America what it must become”? Apparently, contrary to Baldwin’s wish and project, we all had to assimilate to the "burning house." 

I came away from the ceremony with my Naturalization Certificate and a piece of Burmese candy.  One I knew to be useful.  The other was valuable.


Tithi Bhattacharya

Tithi Bhattacharya is a professor of South Asian History at Purdue University. She writes extensively on Marxist theory, gender, and the politics of Islamophobia.

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