“I was surprised at the message to not forget your heritage, but to make it part of building the country. How about you?”
“I liked the Roll Call of Nations.” I nodded.
Last Friday Jock and I drove to Durham for him to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen. Over 20 different countries were represented at the ceremony, and in a truly lovely moment, each nation was called aloud and new citizens originating from each country stood.
Written on the proscenium in black italic script: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Given the rhetoric coming from our government’s executive branch about immigration, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting to see at the U.S. Citizens Naturalization Ceremony. But it was a lovely surprise.
Surprise—yes, it has been a long and surprising road to get here.
Jock moved to the United States in 1984. He came to work in Wilmington as part of the early crew Dino De Laurentiis brought to town. He already had a green card to work in the United States, and he settled in to life in Wilmington, nicely. He never shoveled snow from a driveway or battled filming night exteriors in below-freezing conditions. After Canada, it felt like bliss.
That was over 30 years ago. In the entire meantime, he has lived here as a “resident alien.” He worked, paid taxes, paid into Social Security, and (in my humble and completely biased opinion) contributed greatly to the betterment of our community, this country and communities around the globe. On the night of November 4, 2008, we watched tears roll down Jesse Jackson’s face in Grant Park and listened to John McCain give one of the most eloquent concession speeches I could remember. Friends called from all over the world to gush with excitement, and we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne. Somewhere after 11 p.m., Jock looked at me and commented, “Well, I guess I’ll have to become a citizen now.” He never quite got around to it. Every time I asked he, had an excuse or evasion, and it wasn’t something for me to nag about. If he wanted to do it, he would.
Then “le merde frappe le ventilateur.” The end of January 2017 came, with the announcement of “The Muslim Ban,” followed by the expanded powers of U.S. Border Patrol. Permanent residents were among those detained without access to communication devices or legal counsel when attempting to return to the U.S.
Jock, ever the optimist, quipped he wasn’t worried about being deported to Toronto.
“Sweetheart, you getting deported to Toronto is not what I am worried about. You held without access to a lawyer or a phone, in a small room guarded by men with guns before you are deported to Toronto is what I am worried about,” I responded.
Given the exotic locations to which Jock travels, it is a reasonable concern. We started discussing possible scenarios for him to travel safely. Would we drive him to Canada the next time he had to fly to Africa, and have him fly in and out of Toronto? From what we could ascertain, if Border Patrol had a problem with his re-entry by car, they would most likely just deny him entry and make him turn around. He would go back to his sister’s house and call me, then we would figure out the next steps from there. Would I drive up with the dogs? Possibly. It still seemed safer than trying to fly out of Dulles or Hartsfield.
“It asks me if I am a habitual drunkard?” Jock commented, while filling out his citizenship application. “Have I ever been a member of the Communist Party? Was I a member of the Nazi Party before 1945? They don’t seem to care if I am now—just then? That’s weird.”
Most of our friends who have gone through the citizenship process hired lawyers for help. Jock picked up the application himself and began assembling the pieces to send it off. When he went for his biometrics (photography and fingerprinting), they gave him a copy of the book to study for the civics test. We went through it together. There were the obvious questions: Who is the president? Who is your congressman? Who was George Washington? But I was surprised to see: Who was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Who was Susan B. Anthony?
“I hope I can pass the language proficiency,” Jock began joking, which told me he was more nervous than he was letting on. To-be citizens must demonstrate their ability to communicate in English through writing and speaking. Jock had that covered, but that he was joking about it was more telling.
“What are you going to say if they ask you ‘Why now? Why after all these years did you pick now to be naturalized?’” I knew with that question, we would both be transported to “Ennemis Intérieurs,” an Oscar-nominated short film about a man applying for French citizenship and having his life take a terrible turn with that question. The answer couldn’t be political in anyway, or mercenary, or cynical, or evasive.
“How about you don’t know what to tell your grandson when he asks you why you aren’t an American?” I asked. “No one can really argue with that.”
On the day of his interview and test, we got up at 6 a.m. to have coffee together. Jock informed me I couldn’t drive to Durham with him. “You are so nervous about this that two hours in a car with you is going to make me nervous when I walk in there,” he said. “I need to walk in calm and relaxed.”
I was on pins and needles when he called me about 11 a.m. with the good news: He passed everything, and they were planning to swear him in the following week. The knot of tension I had been holding over my heart loosened; it felt like wings opening up in the front of my chest. Thank all the gods.
For all our worry, in reality, we had all the advantages possible going through the process: Jock held a green card for 30 years. Having grown up an immigrant in Canada (his family immigrated from Holland during his childhood), he was keenly aware of the importance of hanging on to paperwork and having it at his fingertips when he needed to show it to a government official. The entire time he has been here, he has worked and paid taxes. He hasn’t run afoul of the law. He speaks and reads English, fluently. He is a blue-eyed, white male. Whether anyone likes it or not, the reality of the world we live in is he has considerable advantages when walking out the door in the morning.
But what if someone entirely different attempts this process? What if the country they came from no longer exists? How do they get a birth certificate or a marriage license from a non-existent country? What if they were brought here against their will as a result of human trafficking? People don’t have time to collect documents before a kidnapper takes them out of the country. And what if that happened 30 years ago?
Imagine being brought here against your will, but in spite of everything, you have made the best of it and made a life. You now have children here. You can’t go back to the situation you were taken from a lifetime ago.
Or imagine you are trafficked here and forced into prostitution. You get arrested for prostitution. You now have a criminal record. That impacts your ability to find help within the system.
Removing any one of Jock’s aforementioned advantages greatly impacts the process of pursuing legal status or naturalization.
In 2016 the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalized 752,800 new citizens. Of those new citizens, 73 percent came from the following 10 states, in order of greatest to least: California, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, Virginia, and Maryland.
These last few months have made me genuinely aware of the hard work immigration lawyers do to try to help people navigate a confusing system in search of stability for themselves and their families; to help each of us find the path to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”