I became a U.S. citizen in 2012, 10 years after I had become a permanent resident, and 22 after I first arrived in the United States. Today, as President Donald Trump questions what it means to be a citizen, I wonder: Why did it take me so long?
I could have become a citizen much earlier, shortly after I married my husband, an American, in 1998. But at the time, my immediate concern was being able to work, and the green card I got through marriage granted me that option. And, in all honesty, I had no interest in becoming a citizen. I had spent all my childhood and adolescence in South America, and, despite being quite acculturated, I did not feel like I was an American.
In retrospect, this entitled attitude dripped of privilege and historical naiveté. I was young, healthy and the beneficiary of an excellent American education that afforded me great job opportunities. Had I been in a more precarious position — for example, in a low-paying job and with children to support or with a chronic medical condition needing health care — I would have probably been more aware of the benefits that come with citizenship.
But I am even more ashamed of my ignorance about the history of citizenship in the U.S. and the struggle that African Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans and women, to name a few, fought to gain full citizenship — citizenship not only on paper, but in reality. I did not know then about the 1790 Naturalization Act that restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person”; the struggle to pass and enforce the Fourteenth Amendment following the Civil War; the stain to American ideals of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; and the Expatriation Act of 1907, which stated that women, but not men, who married a non-American lost their U.S. citizenship. I took citizenship lightly and for granted.
There were two things that led me to become a U.S. citizen. The first was wanting to vote. I had not been able to vote in the historic 2008 election, and I did not want to miss my last chance to cast a vote for Barack Obama.
The second was having children in the U.S. In 2012, my boys were 10, 8 and 6 years old, and although I spoke Spanish to them and tried to instill in them a love of my culture and country, it was clear that they were first and foremost American — and I realized that this was a very good thing. In school, they learned (and I with them) about the magnificent ideals of the American Revolution — freedom, equality, opportunity — and I could tell that they felt that they could do anything. They had the optimism of being American.
This was incredible to me. Growing up in Latin America under dictatorships and periods of political instability, and witnessing enormous disparities in wealth, I was a little more cynical — maybe even defeatist — about the possibility of changing anything, especially by those not in power.
I began to discover and deeply admire the “can do” attitude of my American friends. I remember meeting a mother in my children’s pre-school who was outraged at the lack of early childhood education programs in a poor Baltimore neighborhood and sprightly told me that she was working to establish a new charter school for underserved kids by the next year. “You can do that?” I asked her perplexed. The idea that regular citizens could challenge the system and try to fix the problem blew my mind. This was something I believed in, and I decided I wanted to be an American.
When I heard that President Trump was questioning birthright citizenship on my way to work the other day, then, I had to pull my car over to process my grief, anger and disappointment.
I am fully aware that this country still has a long way to go to fulfill the American ideals of freedom, equality and opportunity, especially for people of color, gender and sexual minorities, the poor and even women. But raising the question of birthright citizenship on the week when two African Americans were murdered in a grocery store, pipe bombs were sent to public figures, an anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh left 11 dead, and thousands of federal troops are being deployed to the southern border to prevent an “invasion” of people fleeing violence and persecution in Honduras, left me grieving not only for the victims of these attacks, but for the hundreds of thousands who gave up their lives for freedom and justice throughout U.S. history and the death of the ideals that make me so proud to be an American.
I am devastated, and I am feeling powerless. But I am also so very thankful that at least I can vote, for myself, the future of my children and the children of all immigrants, and for the rights of those who cannot vote on Tuesday.