Interview: Laila Lalami, Author Of 'Conditional Citizens' Laila Lalami's new book is Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America. She says conditional citizens — of which she's one — are people sometimes embraced by America, other times rejected.

'Conditional Citizens' Examines What It Means To Be An American

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The writer Laila Lalami is originally from Morocco. She moved to California as a grad student. And she thought when she finished school, she'd go back home. But then she fell in love and married an American. His parents were Cuban immigrants. She writes about what it means for her to be an American citizen in a new book "Conditional Citizens." By her definition, those are citizens who are sometimes embraced by this country and sometimes rejected by it.

LAILA LALAMI: When I was a foreign student, I viewed myself as a foreigner. And I was perceived as a foreigner, and a temporary one at that. So I didn't really concern myself with how people might look at me. It's only a few years later, and particularly after I became a citizen, that I started to pay more attention. People would make comments. Like, I remember going through an airport. And a border agent asked my husband how many camels he had to trade in order to (laughter) get me, so to speak. But definitely, after 9/11, that's when I really started to notice that just because you are a citizen, does not mean that you are treated the same as everyone else.

KING: You decided to stay in the United States because you met your husband. How do you talk to each other about citizenship?

LALAMI: Well, we have a lot of conversations about our experiences. So to just give you an example - yesterday (laughter), I received an email. And I'm trying to pull it up. So you might hear my mouse because I'm trying to pull it up. I don't want to misquote an email from a woman who, it appears, lives in Georgia, and emailed me to say, why don't you go back to Morocco? We didn't invite you here. So why are you here? And when I get this, I really have to reflect about the pronouns that she's using. We didn't invite you here. And who is the we? And who is she speaking for? This woman believes that she has some kind of supreme right to decide who belongs in America and who doesn't.

KING: Did you write back to the woman from Georgia?

LALAMI: (Laughter) No, no. She just wrote it to me yesterday. So I haven't written her back.

KING: But would you?

LALAMI: Well, when I published my first book, I did respond to almost every email that I received. Then eventually, I realized that there was no use doing it because it didn't really change anything. People continued to send comments like this.

KING: What is the emotion attached for you to getting an email like that?

LALAMI: I used to get very angry. And now I just look at it with concern because I think that this is a very fragile time in U.S. history. I think we are seeing a renewed debate about who gets to be American and who doesn't. And this debate in particular involves a side, like this woman, who believe that the only people who have any right to claim U.S. citizenship are, I'm guessing, white people and that everybody else, you know, is not welcome.

KING: I want to ask you about whether the state of being a conditional citizen makes you actively worry that you might at some point not be welcome in the country, that you might get kicked out of the United States? - something that, I think, three years ago I never would have asked. Are there fears in your mind that you could be asked to leave the country, forced to leave the country?

LALAMI: I mean, I think that is a very valid question and a very valid concern that people ought to have. I think that there are certain things that people take for granted, such as birthright citizenship, that nowadays are being put on the table. So for example, there are members of the Trump administration who have, quite openly and forcefully, said that they do not believe that birthright citizenship ought to exist.

Let's say that you're the child of an undocumented person. Even if you were born here, they don't believe that you should have American citizenship. I mean, the original law that delineated the boundaries of American citizenship, the immigration - Naturalization Act of 1790, basically limited citizenship to, quote, unquote, "free white persons." And I feel like (laughter) there are a number of people in this country that pine for those days and want to return to those days. So I don't think that that's an unreasonable concern at all.

KING: President Trump was elected on a platform that you could actually characterize as anti-immigrant or anti-certain immigrants. And then, at the Republican National Convention recently, he hosted a citizenship ceremony at the White House. When you saw that moment, when you heard about that moment, what went through your head? What did you think?

LALAMI: Well, I was amazed that the brazenness of it. Out of the five immigrants that were sworn in that day, there was a woman who is an immigrant from Sudan. Trump signed a immigration ban that basically banned Sudanese immigrants. So this woman and the other four, whom he praised as "absolutely incredible" individuals, quote, unquote, that this woman would not have been allowed under his own laws to become a U.S. citizen. I just was amazed by the whole spectacle of a president who got elected by telling people that we needed a, quote, "complete and total shutdown" of Muslim immigration presiding over a naturalization ceremony in which a Muslim immigrant becomes a citizen from a country that he has banned.

KING: Is there anything that you do that you think of as proving publicly that you're an American, whether celebrating really loud on the Fourth of July or teaching your daughter the Constitution? Like, is there any part of you that feels the need to prove it?

LALAMI: No, because I think that, for most of us, citizenship is an accident. It is a complete chance that you were born wherever you were born and become a citizen of that country. You don't do anything to sort of earn that right, right? It's just something that you're born with. And I believe you can show allegiance to the United States. And you can show your love for a country through a critical examination of it. I don't think that allegiance needs to be blind. I really look at citizenship not as a status, but as a relationship both with other citizens in the United States and with the government that we, as a people, have elected. And I think because I look at it as a relationship, then I think that it's an act of care to write a book like this. It's an act of love to write a book that is critical about it because you wouldn't - if you didn't care, you wouldn't want something to be better.

KING: Laila Lalami. Her latest book is called "Conditional Citizens." Laila, thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.

LALAMI: Thank you very much for having me.


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