Tests And Tales Of Becoming A U.S. Citizen
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. On Independence Day swearing in ceremonies of new citizens are traditional. A celebration of the country's past and it's evolving future. At Mount Vernon today about 100 people from more than 40 different countries became citizens.
(SOUNDBITE OF CEREMONY)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: So help me God.
UNIDENTIFIED CITIZENS: So help me God.
MAN 1: Congratulations. You are America's newest citizens.
SIEGEL: On the anniversary of the day when Americans declared themselves no longer subjects of the King of England we're considering what citizenship means to people who choose naturalization.
HIROSHI MOTOMURA: I am a naturalized American citizen.
ALBERTO FERNANDEZ: Becoming an active part of the political sphere is very special.
REBECCA DENG: Wow I'm an American citizen.
SIEGEL: We're going to hear from those three people - people who made the often complex decision to become naturalized. They're in a minority. Most foreigners who live in the U.S. are here legally but they are not citizens. UCLA law professor Hiroshi Motomura became naturalized at age 15. He was born into an odd wrinkle of conflicting nationality laws.
MOTOMURA: My family came to this country when I was 3-years-old. My mother being a Japanese citizen and my father being an American citizen. There are rules that govern this sort of thing. And my father could have transmitted American citizenship to me if he had lived longer in the United States before my birth. But he hadn't. And so he couldn't give me American citizenship. Japanese citizenship did pass by blood but it did not pass through the mother. It passed through the father until the 1980s. So that meant I could get neither U.S. nor Japanese citizenship. And when I naturalized it actually says on my naturalization certificate stateless.
SIEGEL: Motomura had grown up in California becoming a citizen made a legal fact out of his reality as a teenager. For his Japanese-born mother, it was different. It took her decades to decide.
MOTOMURA: It was only when she got into her 60s that she realized, you know, I think I'm American. Somewhere along the line I became American. It wasn't some single moment or anything like that. But now I think I really am. And I guess I'm really not going back. And so the statistics about who becomes a citizen, who doesn't become a citizen - those statistics are the overlay for a lot of complex human decisions. And it's not just a simple matter of that you wake up one morning and ask yourself today I'm going to make the decision to become a citizen or not.
SIEGEL: Does Independence Day mean something special to you?
MOTOMURA: Yeah it does. You know, this is something that I think back, you know, when I was a kid my father always made a big deal out of going to see the fireworks. And looking back, I've always wondered what he thought on those days because he worked as a cook in hotels in San Francisco. And he had a hard life but I think he had a lot of faith that his kid, somehow, would make it. I think that meant quite a bit to him.
SIEGEL: Professor Hiroshi Motomura was brought here in peace-time as a child. Some naturalized citizens came to this country to escape danger. They were refugees from war.
DENG: My name is Rebecca Deng. I'm originally from South Sudan. My birth parents die in the war.
SIEGEL: When Rebecca Deng's parents died, South Sudan wasn't independent yet. People in the South fought for decades against the Sudanese regime. As a 6-year-old, Rebecca Deng was an orphan in search of refuge.
DENG: I did a lot of walking. Blister everywhere. And then my uncle carry me but he could not carry me the entire time.
SIEGEL: She walked miles to a refugee camp in Kenya and spent 8 years there. At age 14 she was about to be married off by her uncle to an interested suitor. Instead a teacher alarmed by that prospect, she says, got her into a program to resettle Sudanese orphans in the U.S. We typically think of them as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
DENG: But I'm a girl. So there were some girls there. Seventy something girls qualified through their Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan. And then I was resettled in Holland, Michigan, was my American family. And then in 2006 I become a U.S. citizen. And I'm part of American system now.
SIEGEL: Rebecca told me the turning point for her, the moment when she decided she would become a citizen, was when she was left off a school trip to Israel. Legally, she was Sudanese and they Israelis would have nothing to do with Sudan. She says, she felt excluded.
DENG: I think I was partly being told, like, you are different because if I want to go on a trip and I cannot do it because a citizen of a country that I have never been a part of that it - that's treating me different. And that's not giving me opportunities. It's a tricky question because when you come as a refugee at what point do you decide to be, I'm not a refugee now and I'm an American.
SIEGEL: Rebecca Deng now works with refugees. She works for the American Bible Society. Her swearing-in ceremony was in Grand Rapids.
DENG: I remembered it well because of what the first time I felt like I'm a citizen to a country. I neighbor. You know, like, as I told you, like, when I run I didn't have any document that say I'm a citizen of Sudan or whatever. I don't remember seeing that. There was my birth certificate which burnt - when people run - when our village was burnt down. So during citizenship where I was, you know, this is Rebecca Deng citizen of the United States - I felt really good and it was emotional because I was like wow, for the first time I have a place, a country, home that I'm citizen.
MADELEINE SUMPTION: Refugees are actually one of the groups that are most likely to naturalize. And that's probably because, after their experiences at home, they know that they can't go back and they are particularly committed to making sure that they can integrate in the U.S. and that they have a guarantee of being able to stay here permanently.
SIEGEL: Madeleine Sumption is a research director at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington DC. She says, ask people why they seek naturalization and they mention political rights and the symbolic importance of belonging. But there are economic benefits, too.
SUMPTION: There does appear to be a benefit of about 5 percent, possibly a little more, in earnings as a result of being a naturalized citizen.
SIEGEL: And that's being a naturalized citizen as opposed to being a documented person here with legal papers. We're not just comparing them to people who live in a shadow economy where you see that event?
SUMPTION: That's right.
SIEGEL: Last year nearly a million people were naturalized. Sumption points out that's out of 40 billion noncitizens who live in the U.S. 100,000 of those who took the oath, the biggest single group, were from Mexico.
FERNANDEZ: My name is Alberto Fernandez. I was born in Mexico City. I am 40 years old. I'm a Ph.D. candidate in politics. I became a U.S. citizen in 2013. And I've been living in the U.S. for the past seven years now.
SIEGEL: Alberto Fernandez's wife is American. Their two daughters are American. And he says at first, he took his time about applying for citizenship.
FERNANDEZ: What made me finally decided that it was time is when I started seeing that the immigration debate was becoming so toxic. Then you actually get into wondering if your status as a permanent resident is enough.
SIEGEL: Even with a green card?
FERNANDEZ: Yeah with a green card, yeah.
SIEGEL: Might you be vulnerable at some point?
FERNANDEZ: Yeah. You can be vulnerable. I mean, not only but maybe to some policy changes that make more difficult to become a citizen.
SIEGEL: Fernandez says his father is a lifelong critic of U.S. policy in Central America. And Alberto says he himself had demonstrated against the war in Iraq.
FERNANDEZ: I have serious doubt. I still have serious disagreement with things that I see and criticize like U.S. foreign-policy, like, things like that.
SIEGEL: When you're faced with the question, do I want to become a member of this club when I disagree with some of its activities?
FERNANDEZ: Well, but I think when I realized that actually this is a very open club. Where you can disagree and that's part of the game - then it makes that decision easier, no? So it's not like you even have to buy the entire package of what the rest of the world sees as the U.S.
SIEGEL: At his swearing-in ceremony last year the ambivalence was gone.
FERNANDEZ: There were 120 new citizens at the ceremony. That's when for me it just really clicked in. That I was becoming part of this great, open space with, you know, contributions from people from all over the world. And it was very obvious. There were physically different faces - people like - some of them bringing their own, like, little flags just to remember who they came from, talking in different languages and all sharing this, you know, this hope, perhaps this conviction that they were, like, taking a big step in their life. And I don't know, perhaps realizing that then, from that moment on, they had more of a voice in and a say in the affairs of the country, which for me is very important.
SIEGEL: Alberto Fernandez is working toward a Ph.D. - obviously most aspiring citizens are not. And many face obstacles. The process costs money - $680. And it requires them to pass a test of their English and their knowledge of American civics. CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center in Washington DC, offers a 12-week citizenship class. This was the final week of the course.
RACHEL GITTINGER: My name is Rachel Gittinger and I'm the citizenship coordinator here at CARECEN. So today they put it all together. It's their final exam and we're simulating a naturalization interview. After passing the personal interview there is a three-part exam. The first part is a civics test and the person must pass 6 out of 10.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Name one problem that led to the Civil War.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Slavery.
WOMAN 1: What is the name of the speaker of the House of Representatives now?
MAN 2: John Boehner.
GITTINGER: And then comes the English-language portion.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Read?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Who is the father of our country?
MAN 3: Can you read the next sentence?
GITTINGER: And then they go on to the writing portion of the exam. Which for many of our students is the most difficult since English is not written as it's pronounced.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3: Welcome to graduation.
GITTINGER: Most people decide to do it because they say that it's the final step in their American dream. So they go for it.
WOMAN 3: OK. Let's start. Mariano.
SIEGEL: Phillip Bobbit is a prolific author and legal scholar at both Columbia University at the University of Texas. He's written on the rights and benefits that come with citizenship. But Bobbit says there's something less tangible, almost spiritual about it, too. He quoted a passage to me from the 19th century Romantic writer Sir Walter Scott - a passage about patriotism.
PHILLIP BOBBIT: The lines go, breathes there man with soul so dead. Who never to himself have said, this is my own my native land. I think those sentiments are universal. And people want a sense of place and sense of belonging. And that our efforts are how to build a just society that's compatible with that.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 4: Myra Pyredes Vasquez. Tatiana Cecilia Lopez Torres.
SIEGEL: Today 7,500 people across the country, including those at Mount Vernon, took the oath of allegiance and formally joined in those efforts.
WOMAN 4: Maria Nadime. Quong He Pham. Adele Sahore Gare.
SIEGEL: If you or someone in your family has a story about naturalization we'd like to hear it. You can reach us on Twitter and Facebook. We are @NPRATC. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.