© 2008, 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Although many people emigrate every year, my guess is that most of the six billion people on this planet will hold only one country's citizenship throughout their whole life. Being (pleasantly) abnormal, not only did I choose to emigrate, but I also chose to obtain a second citizenship.
So, what does getting US citizenship involve? Although immigration is a hot topic in this country (especially illegal immigration), most Americans never go through the process, so it has been my experience that they have only a vague idea of what it entails. When asked, my standard response has been, "You have to show proof of purchase of at least two hand guns [some people think that's plausible], swim the Rio Grande [some think that's only a requirement for people of Hispanic origin], and name the capitals of all 50 states." Of course, the first two "requirements" are nonsense, and while the third seems plausible, the failure rate for American-born citizens would be very high. But to be fair, how many Brits can name all their counties? And how many Japanese can name all their prefectures? Of course, people from countries like Australia (which is so poor it can only afford six states and a couple of territories) have it much easier.
[Regarding knowing all the state capitals, the knowledge-challenged office worker with light-colored hair was tired of having co-workers call her a dumb blonde. The next time it happened, she replied, "I'll have you know that last night I went home and learned the capitals of all 50 states." When asked the capital of Wyoming, she replied, "W, of course!"]
What follows is a discussion about my initial visa status in the US, my getting permanent residency, and my eventual decision to take out citizenship.
The Devil Made Me Do it!
To paraphrase American humorist Dave Barry, "Should You Become a US Citizen? Should Anybody?" [See his very funny book, Babies and Other Hazards of Sex: How to make a tiny person in only 9 months with tools you probably have around the home, 1984, ISBN 0-87857-510-3.] But seriously folks, why did I want to become a US citizen? And why did I wait so long?
Let's start by looking at the "disadvantages" of living in the US without having citizenship:
- No voting at the federal, state, or local level, and since voter registration rolls are used for things like public school board and sheriff elections, pretty much all voting for political positions is off limits. [That said I've heard it stated, "Why bother to vote when you can own your own member of Congress?"]
- Cannot run for the Federal Senate or House of Representatives.
- No security clearances, but since I'd always had a "No nukes, no spooks" rule that wasn't a limitation.
- Must actually be in the US at least once a year. Specifically, if you leave the country for more than a year you might not be readmitted. The rationale is that if you want permission to live and work in the US then you should be living and working in the US, damn it! [Interestingly, once you have citizenship, this requirement goes away.]
- No jury duty, because selection is taken from voter registration rolls.
You can join the US military without being a citizen, but (presumably) you must swear an oath to the US.
So what prompted me to become a US citizen?
- After George H.W. Bush's unimpressive tenure, his pathetic vice president, Dan Quayle, and wayward son George W. Bush's two terms, I wanted to have a vote in the choice of my future leader. I thought, "Who will they elect next, a B-grade movie actor?" [Actually, I was a fan of Ronnie's.] And when friends abroad asked me why I wanted to be a citizen of that country I nobly replied that I had to separate the office of the presidency from the person currently occupying it. However, I was careful never to say that we couldn't possibly do worse. If it should ever happen that we get a President Palin, I may well be looking for a third citizenship! [Do you know that I can't see Russia from my house?]
- Once the Guantanamo Bay detention center started to get publicity, I tried to figure out the practical meaning of the term citizen in the Constitution. If being a citizen really meant, "having US citizenship", I didn't, so what rights did I really have? Could I be jailed indefinitely without trial simply for farting in the general direction of some right-wing Nationalist law-enforcement officer?
After five years in the US, I obtained permanent residency, and five years after that I was eligible to apply for citizenship. So why did I wait a further 18 years?
- Unlike many people who immigrate to the US, I was not a refugee or stateless person, and I wasn't escaping from anything. In fact, when I left Australia in 1979, life there was very good. I owned a house with a small mortgage, I had a good job, the weather was very nice, and Adelaide was indeed a fine city in which to work and play. I didn't need US citizenship.
- Prior to 2002, Australia did not allow dual citizenship, and I was in no hurry to give up one reasonably respected passport for another. Why not have both if that were possible? [And if you have a problem with anyone having multiple passports, I respectfully suggest you probably have never had that option to consider for yourself.]
In The Beginning
I entered the US in 1979 with an H-1 visa, which allowed me to work for a period of one year (but only for my visa sponsor). I was classified as a non-resident alien (you know, like Robin Williams as "Mork from Ork"). To open a bank account I needed a Social Security Number, so I applied for one and got it.
At the end of the first year, I applied for a 1-year extension and that was granted. I could only live and work in the US in this manner for a maximum of five years, after which I needed to get a more permanent status.
Now when you apply for a temporary work permit, you must agree that it is not your intent to stay permanently. Then, once you have been here for "a suitable amount of time", you can inform the immigration authorities that you'd really like to stay permanently. For me that happened after two years. But it took three years for me to get that permanent status. The reasons were several: I didn't have a university degree, so I was mixed in with the "unskilled" workers; there was a fairly small quota on the number of Aussies admitted each year [and rightly so, those bloody larrikins!]; and during the process I moved interstate and back again, which caused my records to be transferred twice to different regional immigration offices (and misplaced once).
Once I'd applied for permanent residency and my current visa expired, I no longer got a new visa stamped in my passport. For more than two years, if I'd left the US I would not have been able to get back in. So the price to pay while the residency application was "in process" was to stay in the US, although I pushed that to the limits by taking a vacation in Hawaii.
After being in the US for a year, I started to notice situations in which race seemed to be a factor. I remember well one of my first exposures to racial profiling and prejudice in the US. I had been on a vacation on the Amazon River in northeast Peru, followed by a stay at the capital Lima, and then time at the famous Incan city, Machu Picchu, high in the Andes. I flew back to the US with a Peruvian airline and came in through Miami, Florida, at around 6 am. There were three immigration agents, two handling American citizens and one handling the 150+ foreigners, me included. Once the handful of Americans had been processed, the two agents started chatting to each other. Eventually, they decided to help their colleague with his long line. But instead of taking the next person in line, one of them waved to me, where I stood about 50 people back in the line, and beckoned me to approach his desk. I told him that I was neither a citizen nor a permanent resident and he leaned over and spoke quietly in my ear saying, "I didn't think you looked like you belonged in that line!" Welcome to the US of A, the land of equality. Apparently, some people are more equal than are others!
The Little Green Card that Isn't!
A temporary visa is stamped in one's passport. When one gets permanent residency—i.e., becomes a resident alien—one gets a coveted green card. At one time green cards were actually—well—green. Mine was white, and I think that several years after mine was issued they went to pink.
A green card meant having the ability to live and work permanently in the US without restraint. However, green cards issued several years after I got mine had a lifetime of 10 years only.
I recall that for the first few years that I had a green card I had to report to a US Post Office once a year to register my current postal address. [Got to keep an eye on us foreigners!] Eventually, that requirement was struck down by the Courts.
I finished up having a green card for almost 25 years, and each time I entered the US I had to show that card plus a valid Passport (which in my case, was Australian). Around 2000 or so, I remember two separate, but identical, incidents when I came through immigration at my home airport, Washington Dulles International (IAD). In each case, the super-macho immigration officer said to me in a very gruff voice, "Isn't it about time you got citizenship?" He had no right to say that, of course, although he certainly could have invited me to do so in a friendly manner, but I deduced he was trying to impose his own immigration policy; you know, give someone a badge and a gun and a bit of power, and it can go to his or her head! Afterwards, I decided I needed to have a ready response should it happen again, but one that would not get me sitting in an interrogation room for four hours. It never did happen again, but my response was going to be, "That's an interesting idea. Could you please explain to me the benefits of getting US citizenship?" I'm sure the officer would have been angry for an instant and would have told me to "Move along now" while muttering, "Well if you don't know how great America is and why everyone wants to come live here then I'm not going to waste my time telling you!"
Interestingly, there must have been a lot of complaints about immigration officials' attitudes because several years ago, there was a big campaign to introduce the new "kinder, gentler immigration agency".
The Citizenship Application Process
Early in April 2008, more than 17 years after I was eligible, I applied for US citizenship. A month later, I received instructions to report to a Federal Center to be fingerprinted. At that Center, I was also given a book of American civics and history questions and answers to prepare for my in-person citizenship interview.
The application process was quite straightforward, but several questions are worthy of mention:
- How many total days did you spend outside of the United States during the past five years?
- How many trips of 24 hours or more have you taken outside of the United States during the past five years?
- List below all the trips of 24 hours or more that you have taken outside of the United States since becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident. [This one took the longest to research. Unlike most people applying for citizenship, I waited 22 years after becoming a permanent resident, and I had traveled abroad extensively. Between cancelled passports and diaries, I managed to piece together my travel record with only a few specific dates unknown. The rationale to this question is to see if the applicant has visited "unfriendly" or embargoed countries.]
- Do you owe any Federal, state or local taxes that are overdue?
- Have you ever been a member of or associated with any organization, association, fund foundation, party, club, society or similar group in the United States or in any other place? If you answered "Yes", list the name of each group below. [This one took a while, and I included everything I could think off from sporting clubs to professional associations to Parent Teacher Associations. The rationale to this question is to see if the applicant has belonged to "unfriendly" or extremist groups (you know, like the Judean People's Front or the People's Front of Judea).]
- Have you ever persecuted (either directly or indirectly) any person because of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group or political opinion?
- Have you ever committed a crime or offense for which you were not arrested? [Say what! A trick question, no doubt.]
Have you ever:
- Been an habitual drunkard? [A veddy Victorian question, what!]
- Been a prostitute or procured anyone for prostitution?
- Sold or smuggled controlled substances, illegal drugs, or narcotics?
- Been married to more than one person at the same time? [That would mean multiple mothers-in-law!]
- Helped anyone enter or try to enter the United States illegally?
- Gambled illegally or received income from illegal gambling?
- Failed to support your dependents or to pay alimony?
The rationale to these final questions is to see if the applicant is of good moral character. Specifically, lying on your application shows bad character.
Preparing for the Test
Part of the interview process involves taking a test on American civics and history. The booklet I was given had all the possible questions and their one-line answers, and that was all I was required to know. The booklet also gave some background details on each of the questions and answers. But rather than just remember the answers, I spent quite a lot of time researching the history of many of the questions. Some of the things I learned were:
- In its 220-year history, the US constitution has been amended only 27 times, and one amendment repealed another (prohibition). Only six other amendments have ever been passed by Congress but they were not ratified. Two of those (Equal Rights Amendment for women, and giving Washington DC full representation in Congress) expired due to time limits. The other four have no time limits and are still "on the books".
- The Bill of Rights is made up of the first 10 amendments to the constitution. However, these were Numbers 3–12 of a package of 12 that was originally submitted. One of the 12 failed to pass Congress, and the other took some 200 years to get ratified (by the required ¾ of the states then in existence). That became the 27th and most recent amendment, which prohibits a Congressional pay raise taking effect in the same 2-year Congressional term in which it was passed.
- While the big Election Day most often occurs on the first Tuesday in November, it actually is required to happen on the Tuesday after the first Monday (to allow voters to travel to the polling place on the Monday, avoiding travel on Sundays). So if November 1 is a Tuesday, the election is held on November 8, the second Tuesday of that month.
While I was given the answers to learn, one question had an answer that was much more complicated that any of the others.
Question: Name the [constitutional] amendments that guarantee or address voting rights.
Answer: 15th (non-white males get the vote), 19th (women get the vote), 24th (state laws allowing poll taxes cannot be applied to Federal elections), and 26th (lowering the voting age from 21 to 18).
I had no idea how long the wait for my in-person interview would be, but I guessed it would be at least a year. Every since 9/11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, crossing the border into the US has become increasingly formal, and with the backlog of passport applications and such, immigration and state department officials were stretched to the max.
About 11 months after I submitted my application, I received instructions to report to my local immigration office in about two months. Meanwhile, I had booked a 3-week vacation to Slovenia and Croatia, and the interview date was right smack in the middle of that trip. However, there is no negotiating with Immigration; when they say "Jump" you say "How high, Sir?" So I cancelled the trip.
The big day finally arrived and I fronted up on a Wednesday afternoon. My interviewer was a young newly minted lawyer who appeared to be killing time in the Immigration Department until he could find a "real job". I was his last candidate for the day and probably his only native English speaker. He was very laid-back. He started asking me some civics and history questions, and once I'd answered the first six correctly, he stopped.
If one has been in the US more than 20 years and is over the age of 50, the English proficiency test can be waived; however, I was asked to take it. I had to read one sentence from a piece of paper and write another sentence that the interviewer dictated. I was not required to comprehend either sentence.
After some paperwork, I was asked when I'd like to be sworn in. I replied, "As soon as possible", so it was set for the following afternoon.
The Swearing In
The next day, I reported for the swearing-in ceremony where I surrendered my green card. About 50 people were sworn in as a group. We watched a video of President George W. Bush that was actually quite moving, and we each received a Certificate of Naturalization. Out in the lobby members of a volunteer organization were there to get us registered as voters.
From there, I went to a Post Office nearby where I applied for a US passport. [Previously, my green card was like a permanent visa. But since I had just given that up, if I left the US, I could only get back in again with a US passport.]
Here is the Oath of Allegiance I swore:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;
that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic;
that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;
that I will bear arms of behalf of the United States when required by law;
that I will perform non-combatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by law;
that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and
that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.
[Applicants could get a waiver on saying the final phrase.]
I retained my Australian passport, which remains the property of the Aussie government.
On Being an American
July 4th, 2008, was my first Independence Day as an American. I joined friends at their house in Maryland where I waved my little flag, ate traditional BBQ and apple pie, and shot off fireworks. It actually did feel different.
I can safely say that I know far more of the American National Anthem than I do of the Australian one because the Aussies changed theirs since I left. Don't you just hate that when someone changes your national anthem when you are out of town? [Until 15–20 years ago, the Australian National Anthem was "God Save the Queen". Interestingly, there is a well-known American song that uses the same tune; it's called "My Country 'Tis of Thee".]
Then came Thanksgiving, the biggest American holiday, and that was followed by the big Presidential election when I was allowed to vote for the first time in 30 years.
Not being born in the US I am prevented by the US Constitution from being President or Vice President. However, I can run for office as a State or Federal Senator or Representative, but only after I have been a citizen for some years. Of course, I really could aim higher and work to get the constitution amended to allow foreign-born citizens to be eligible for the Presidency. When that happens, watch out for ze Austrian/Prussian Schwarzenegger/Jaeschke ticket!
Are most immigrants better off once they get to the US? If they are here illegally, the answer is very likely No. But even if they are here legally, I suspect the answer all too often is also No.
Now that I have my citizenship [he says tongue-in-cheek], we gotta put a stop to all this immigration. All these people coming over here taking the good jobs, undercutting our wages, mixing with our women, and generally carrying on like they belong here; it just ain't right!
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the capital of Wyoming is Cheyenne, and you can learn the names of the UK counties here and the names of the Japanese prefectures here. Y'all take care now, ya hear!