Did I just become a citizen of a country that doesn't want me?

The Supreme Court had just struck down affirmative action. The man said, "Can you please raise your right hand?"

Published July 29, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Vishaun Lawrence of Jamaica, a new U.S. citizen, holds and American flag along with her citizenship papers as she participates in a naturalization ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center on July 3, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Vishaun Lawrence of Jamaica, a new U.S. citizen, holds and American flag along with her citizenship papers as she participates in a naturalization ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center on July 3, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

When the news that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of doing away with race-conscious college admissions, I was on a plane, traveling to Texas to be sworn in as an American citizen. By the time we landed, my texts and social media feeds were consumed by the ruling. While other passengers hopped out of their seats to grab overhead bags, I sat stunned. Was I really going to go through with raising my right hand to swear that, should the law require it, I would bear arms to protect a country that keeps telling me it's not sure if it wants to protect me? 

Let me back up. For the last 29 years, I've resided in the U.S. — as a student, an arts administrator, a curator, a writer, and most recently, a business owner. I've lived in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Austin. I have been a permanent resident of the U.S. since 1994, but Montreal has always felt like home to me.

Some of my life's biggest changes have happened during this time. I became a parent. I got married. (In that order.) I was quite comfortable with my permanent resident status — much like the comfort that comes with a non-committal relationship, which I know a lot about. But after nearly three decades, I am no longer comfortable not having a vote in the country where I am raising a child and growing a business. I'm no longer comfortable not having a say in how my body, my child, the people I work with, my friends, neighbors and family are cared for.

Why has it taken me nearly 30 years to make this decision? The most honest answer is that I don't know if I feel safe here. Because I am a Black queer woman. Because I have been detained by U.S. Border Control. Because an immigration officer once told me that Americans lynch Canadians. Because guns. Because a growing scarcity mindset has made it harder for people to be kind to each other. But the decision to become an American citizen moves beyond me— anchored to the belief that after nearly three decades, it is my responsibility and privilege to shape a country for the people who I care for, and for those who care for me. This belief let me begin the citizenship process.

Along the way, my resolve in this belief would continue to be tested, along with my fears about living in this country.

* * *

Six months after completing an online questionnaire that asked questions like Have you EVER been a habitual drunkard? I was invited to an in-person interview. When the officer, seemingly making small talk, asked, "Aren't you moving the wrong way? Do you not like free Canadian health care?"

A trap! I thought, laughing nervously. "Well, these things are complicated," I said, trying my hand at witty banter. But he stayed quiet.

Why has it taken me nearly 30 years to make this decision? The most honest answer is that I don't know if I feel safe here.

I aced my verbal exam by answering six questions in a row correctly. Some were easy: What is the ocean on the West Coast of the United States? Others were a little trickier: What is the supreme law of the land? And after I was asked —  twice— "If the law requires it, are you willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States?" I was invited to return the following week for a swearing-in ceremony. 

I flew back east to my husband and child who were visiting family in New Jersey, before returning to Texas by myself. While still on the plane, I learned of the Supreme Court's decision to ignore the far-reaching impacts of systemic racism. The announcement continued to test my fears and my resolve. But I got off the plane to pick up a rental car to make the hour-and-a-half drive to San Antonio, where I would be sworn in.

My drive in the rental — a red pickup truck — gave me plenty of time to think about how I got to this point. I drove with the windows down. From time to time, I checked my rearview mirror.

* * *

My parents emigrated from Trinidad to Montreal in the 1960s. Because Trinidad was still a crown colony at the time, my father actually entered Canada on a British passport. As a child, the fact that my parents left where they were from, for somewhere new, was such a non-thing — in line with the experiences of many of my friends' parents, who'd come from Italy, China, Ukraine, Portugal. (And that was just on our block.) I simply believed that moving away was something you do when you grow up. Even my name is evidence of the role moving away plays in my family's history. Lise is a common French-Canadian — not French — name. And Ragbir is a common Indo-Caribbean — not Indian — name. Both names allude to the far-reaching and ongoing impact of colonialism as we give power to borders and trust a fiction that has shaped histories and lives.

"Hello everyone! Are you all ready to become American citizens today?"

In the 1980s, as Quebec politics increasingly shaped the provincial economy, my parents applied for Permanent Resident status in the U.S., in an effort to keep their options open. Like many West Indians, their siblings had dispersed across the globe, with many ending up in the U.S. — New York, specifically. Throughout grade school, I can't remember a summer, Easter, or Canadian Thanksgiving when we didn't pack the car to make the seven-hour drive from Sherbrooke Street to Flatbush Avenue via I-87.

In high school, I started making the trip without my parents, to visit cousins and see shows by artists like The Pharcyde, De La Soul and KRS One. As such, New York became the backdrop to my coming of age. New York wasn't like Montreal. At parties in Brooklyn, I wasn't the only Black person. Standing in line at Gloria's roti shop, I wasn't the only kid with Trini parents. So when my parents were approved for permanent resident status after waiting nearly 15 years, I jumped at the chance to move south. Within months, my parents let their status wane. They never took up residency and remain in Canada to this day.

* * *

On the drive from Austin to San Antonio, I saw a range of bumper stickers that continued to test my fear and resolve: "Country girls don't retreat, they reload." "Dump Joe and the Hoe." "I'll keep my guns, freedom, and money. You keep the change."

My seatbelt felt tight as I drove.

In a strip mall in the San Antonio suburbs, people meandered through the parking lot of an immigration office carrying official-looking envelopes and little American flags. The majority of us in attendance were people of color, as were the immigration officers who were patient, and I daresay, joyful.

After being herded through a metal detector, I was asked to hand over my green card. "You're taking it? Like, for good?"

"That's right. You don't need it anymore," the officer said with a smile. I didn't tell him I've been carrying my green card with me every day since 2015. Without it, I felt vulnerable, even as I made my way to the ceremony room.

Inside, nervous-looking people were taking selfies, or reading the letter from the President that we each found on our seats. I did neither.

I walked into the Texas heat carrying my little American flag. People looked at me as though I'd just won a prize.

"Hello everyone! Are you all ready to become American citizens today?" asked a cheerful man from the podium. He looked to be my age. Dark hair. Olive skin. He identified himself as a supervisor. The room full of people nodded as if on cue, and I felt like I was the only one having mixed feelings.

He ran through a list of dos and don'ts. (Do raise your right hand when told. Don't record anything.) He'd obviously done this about a million times and clearly loved it. His enthusiasm was infectious.

He led us in a rehearsal of the oath. Then, perhaps sensing the collective anxiety, he coaxed a room full of about-to-be Americans into doing the wave, like we were at a baseball game or a Beyoncé concert. We had to do it twice because the first time we messed up. You know, nerves. But by the time we were done, everyone was laughing and smiling at each other and we felt like we were in this wild thing together. He didn't miss a beat — he launched straight into the ceremony.

"Can you all please raise your right hand?" The words were a blur, but I said "I do" at the right time and the woman next to me bounced up and down, her blonde bob swinging above the straps on her summer dress. She went to hug me, but my face said, That was nice and all, but please don't.

One by one our names were called to receive our naturalization certificate. When the supervisor handed me mine I thanked him and said, "You were really good. You made that so pleasant and easy. And you were just so kind."

"Well, thank you," he said. "I try."

I walked into the Texas heat carrying my little American flag. People looked at me as though I'd just won a prize. I didn't have the urge to hug strangers out of sheer joy, so part of me felt like a fraud. Another part of me, however, was proud —I'd moved through my fear to stand on this side. I did this thing that people have died for. I did this thing that gave me an extra coat of armor — for better or worse.

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Around me, families cheered and cried and hugged and laughed. I choked down the knot in my throat and made my way through the crowded lot. In my truck, I locked the doors, placed my certificate and flag on the passenger seat and took a snapshot to send to family and friends, most of whom knew about my mixed feelings. One friend suggested I listen to Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which I did, on repeat. The rendition is perfect dissonance: a balance of hope and frustration and beauty and pain. The certificate and flag sat in the passenger seat while I drove back to Austin.

* * *

I have always believed that my parents' choice to leave the island of Trinidad for the island of Montreal had a very matter-of-fact, straightforward quality to it. And maybe it was that way for them. In fact, for millions of people, leaving where you're from is what you do. In 2020, it was estimated that more than 280 million around the world left their place of birth — because it was expected of them, or it was necessary, or they had no choice.

But officially leaving wasn't straightforward for me. The decision to become a U.S. citizen wasn't like the decision my parents made. Yes, the world is different now. For one, Trinidadians no longer have automatic British passports like my father did. But change doesn't end there.

In addition to the blow to Affirmative Action, in the same week, the Supreme Court shot down President Biden's proposal to forgive student debt and ruled that businesses are allowed to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community. In one week, we saw how much this country is changing — and how far we need to go.

In a recent conversation with my parents, my mother said that while she understands why I did it, she struggles with the idea that I became a citizen of a country where some of the laws seem unjust. My father, on the other hand, said that if he could, he would do exactly what I did. "I think the U.S. is through a rough time—maybe like growing pains—but they will get back on track," he told me. 

This is not an argument for, or against, becoming an American citizen. I know this is a privilege that many have lost their lives trying to attain.

He added that when he left Trinidad in the '60s, he had initially planned to go back some day. "I didn't want to stay in Canada," he said. "For decades, Trinidad was my home. But now Montreal feels more like home."

I wonder if the same thing will happen to me. Maybe, like him, it will take time.

Before I'm told to go back to where I came from, let me be clear: This is not an argument for, or against, becoming an American citizen. I know this is a privilege that many have lost their lives trying to attain. I know that my citizenship lets me move about the world with an ease unknown to billions of people. I know that legally, my citizenship lets me voice my opinion without risk. But with the Supreme Court rulings that we've seen in the last year, for someone like me — even with all the privilege that comes with being an American — the decision to dig deeper into this country is complex, even as I stand on this side of my fear, equipped with all the privileges that come with being an American.

When I got home, I read the letter from President Biden. In addition to acknowledging the courage it takes to start a life in a new country, the letter declares that America is a nation of possibilities and that the country has flourished because of immigrants. But I was most struck by this line: "Thank you for choosing us and for believing that America is worthy of your aspirations."

Maybe one day the world won't have borders, education will be available to everyone, and regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age or ability, we will all be treated equally. But until then, I raised my right hand and took an oath to protect this country because I want to believe that my voice will add to the chorus of change. Because I want to believe that as we move forward, we can all be protected. I don't know how long this will take, or even if it's possible. But as a new American citizen inspired by an immigration supervisor, I have to try.

By Lise Ragbir

Lise Ragbir writes about race, immigration, arts and culture, and relationships. She was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, and now makes her home in Austin, Texas.

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