Natural-born U.S. citizens may take their status for granted — that is, if they aren’t wishing they belonged to another country altogether — but every month, thousands of immigrants officially become their fellow Americans.
At Oakland’s Paramount Theatre earlier this month, about 1,400 new citizens from nearly 100 countries swore an oath of allegiance to the United States of America and its Constitution after hearing — and booing — a jarringly coherent message from President Donald Trump. Outside, vendors were ready to sell them frames and flags, and register them to vote at a time when American electoral politics remain at the forefront of the national discussion.
New citizens might half-jokingly be asked why they would ever want to become Americans in 2017. But citizenship is a project years in the making, and still a dream for hopeful souls around the world seeking safety, security, and opportunity. It can also be a way for permanent residents to seal their rights as U.S. citizens and remain in their homes, even as they question how welcome they are.
This Thanksgiving, while tens of millions of Americans (native-born and otherwise) wrestle with questions of patriotism or the efficacy of our political leadership, we profile eight Northern Californians who recently became citizens and one resident who’s in the middle of a decades-long decisionmaking process. This has been a difficult year, but it’s comforting to know that the idea of E Pluribus Unum still beckons to people. So: Greetings, citizens. We wish you well and hope you feel at home.
Country of Origin: China
Jian, his two older sisters, and their parents arrived at his uncle’s house in Bell in 1983, later settling in nearby Los Angeles. But trying to assimilate at age 10 when you have an accent developed in Kaiping, China has its challenges.
Education wasn’t important to him at the time, and the language barrier was only strengthened by spending his time with those who spoke his dialect. He ended up dropping out of high school in 1990, he says, hanging out with the wrong crowd and spending six months in jail waiting for a trial on felony charges.
Seeing people returning to jail made him realize he didn’t want to be another statistic, so he distanced himself from those friends and got a job in the auto industry. But in 1997, he got into a car accident that injured his spinal cord, leaving him reliant on a wheelchair.
“I was kind of lost at the time, because I wasn’t able to walk,” Jian says.”Still, I have limited motor skills.”
It signaled another turning point. He went back to school, earning his high school diploma in 1998. He attended Pasadena City College, then graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English, and later earned a masters of fine arts from Mills College.
Interest in language helped develop Jian’s love of storytelling — blending fiction and nonfiction, in particular — and he has a recently finished memoir to prove it. But he isn’t done with school just yet. He’s applying to earn a second masters from Cal, this time in architecture.
“I feel that it’s important to get that degree because, as a person with a disability in a wheelchair, I face a physical barrier, an architectural barrier, every day,” Jian says. “I want to do something about it.”
As he enters a new chapter, he recently closed another by becoming an American citizen in November. Jian had been denied citizenship twice since the late 1990s, but this time had the help of Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach.
While some immigrants may be spurred into citizenship due to the political climate, Jian says the time was just right. Perhaps as an American citizen he can do research at a university nearby.
“You can explore things that you want to do in life,” Jian says of America. “There’s more freedom.” Ida Mojodad
Country of Origin: Chile
“I don’t feel American. I don’t feel a certain tie to the U.S. as being where I’m from,” Jorge says. “I’m not from here, but I was 7 years old when I left my country — so if I want to see my family, I have to go to Chile.”
Being gone from your native land for decades “changes you,” he adds. “You don’t feel like you belong anywhere.”
Jorge is not a U.S. citizen, and he’s been conflicted about his status for years. Having left Santiago with his family after Augusto Pinochet deposed Salvador Allende in a 1973 coup d’etat, he’s been in very unusual circumstances for decades. His father, a World Bank employee, had a sort of lesser diplomatic visa that, while it wouldn’t have protected him from criminal prosecution, exempted him from paying taxes. As such, Jorge qualified for aspecial green card that never needed to be renewed for as long as he was a U.S. resident.
But everything depended on that continued employment. The law wasn’t necessarily aimed at people like Jorge, but under President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration reform, Jorge qualified for a standard green card. (They didn’t expire then, he says.) It was similar to the situation today’s Dreamers face. Meanwhile, his parents returned to Chile in 1998, and his two sisters became naturalized citizens. Starting during “the Patriot Act days,” Jorge began to feel family pressure to follow suit.
“You want to normalize your situation, because having your green card is a weird situation to be in,” he says. “You think you’re permanent, but there’s a certain impermanence, a certain tenuousness.”
Jorge’s wife is American-born but raised in Mexico, and their sons were born in California, as well. The current political climate reminds him of the run-up to the Chilean coup — particularly news items like the Justice Department hinting that Time Warner may need to spin off CNN before merging with AT&T. A line in The Handmaid’s Tale about how “it doesn’t all happen at once” resonated with him, but in discussing what it would take to leave the United States, they haven’t come to any firm conclusions. Mexico would be a difficult choice, especially because Jorge would not be able to work there legally. Even retiring there would require coming back to the U.S. every six months, or he’d risk losing his residency.
“Obviously, when you have teenage children, moving is complicated,” he says. “They speak fluent Spanish. They’re more educated in Spanish than I was — I only have a sixth-grade education in Spanish.”
As is, he’s treated like a second-class citizen every time they cross the border, waiting in a separate line from his family, sometimes for hours longer.
“They look at you as if you’re trash — and a lot of time they’re Latino border agents,” he says. “It’s ridiculous. The amount of looking down upon people crossing the border is really gross.”
He’s also put off by the “jingoistic” questions the U.S. government asks, some of which feel more moral than legal, or as if they were asked by the church and not the state. But no matter what, he will always be Chilean — if only because neither he nor the 500,000 other Chileans living abroad can legally renounce their natal citizenship.
In the meantime, Jorge —along with the 39,000 other Chileans residing outside their homeland who have registered — will vote in a presidential election for the first time, having researched the candidates and issues from afar, and the experience underscores his ambiguous status.
“I go back and forth,” he says. “I go through periods when I feel very Chilean, and I can’t imagine being a U.S. citizen, and other times I feel a little distant from my own country.” Peter Lawrence Kane
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
“I might, at this point, be more Californian than British in some ways,” Rob says. “Particularly my accent, which is now just confusing to everybody.”
A human-resources manager in tech, he’s referring to the t’s that have softened into American-style d’s, although it’s mostly a matter of vocabulary. When he goes home to Southeast England, people often mistake him for an Aussie.
Rob moved to the U.S. for work in March 2008, and while he wasn’t looking to relocate permanently, a predictable anxiety soon set in.
“My visa was linked to my employment of that company,” he says. “I was fairly concerned that, at any moment, I could lose my job and have to pack up and move back to the U.K.”
That the first 90 percent of his residency in the U.S. overlapped with the political ascendancy and eight-year presidency of Barack Obama made things easier — especially as Britain elected a Tory government in 2010.
“From the political perspective it was like, ‘Nothing to complain about here, things are progressing. They’re not where I want them to be, but the U.K. was regressing,’ ” he says. “And in the meantime, I developed a life here.”
San Francisco was the right size, not “an enormous, faceless city” like London. Rob made friends, got a boyfriend, and started playing in bands. Better still, his company helped him navigate the process of getting a green card and, in 2016, his citizenship application.
“It’s not cheap to apply for citizenship!” he says of the $800 filing fee, which you don’t get back if you’re denied.
So, before he became a citizen, he refrained from posting anything political to social media, in case it came back to haunt him. Once you’ve had permanent-resident status for five years, you can apply for citizenship, and to get the ball rolling, you can apply three months before you technically become eligible.
In that, Rob was very lucky — not only in that his ethnicity and country of origin don’t place him on any federal list of suspicious persons, but that he managed to get his application going in December before the fees went up and before Donald Trump became president and might have issued a blanket halt to the entire process. It still took awhile.
“I have a friend in Oregon who is a German national, and he got his faster than me, even though he applied later,” Rob says. “California took a long time.”
That German friend also had to forfeit his German passport; the U.K. demands no such thing of its citizens. While Brexit remains to be sorted out — and it’s likely to affect his immediate family, as his brother’s wife is Spanish — Rob retains the unusual ability to live and work anywhere in the U.S. or E.U. Still, he has no concrete plans to leave the Bay Area, even though he misses Marmite and doesn’t really understand the appeal of Halloween.
He’ll be traveling to Mexico for Christmas on a new American passport, but mostly, he wants to explore more of the U.S., particularly Hawaii and the Dakotas. And he’s already familiar with the quintessentially San Franciscan experience of making chit-chat with right-wing relatives whenever you’re back home.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with very conservative families in the Midwest — southern Illinois and Indiana — who mostly wanted to talk to me about how wonderful Margaret Thatcher was,” he says. “Which is a difficult topic to talk about without getting emotional.” PLK
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
When Simon first came to the United States in 2003, he didn’t have a Social Security number, a bank account, or a phone. Most immigrants don’t. To keep things simple, he spent the first year living in Sunnyvale — near his new employer, Yahoo.
“I lasted a year before moving to San Francisco,” he says.
Making the decision to stay in the United States happened “pretty quick.”
“When I moved here, I had no idea if I’d like living in California,” Simon says. “But I told myself I’d give it at least a year and then decide. By the end of that first year, I was certain. I’d lived in London for eight-and-a-half years before, and California — with Wine Country, Monterey Bay, Yosemite, Tahoe — it’s the perfect place to be, as far as I’m concerned.”
Yahoo is large and well-established enough that sponsoring work visas is not a big deal. For this reason, Simon spent eight years there, until he got a green card and left.
For many immigrants, it’s easy to just live under a permanent-resident status and not go through the mountains of paperwork, fees, and appointments necessary to become a citizen. But for Simon, the election of President Donald Trump was a wakeup call.
“I’m British and I’m white and I’m male; I’m at the least risk of anyone,” he says. “People don’t think of me as an immigrant; I’m just a white guy with an accent they seem to like.”
Privilege aside, talk of deporting noncitizens accused of a crime worried him. Being arrested in the United States is easy — “you’re in the wrong place on a corner when a protest goes by,” for example, and all of a sudden your immigration status is threatened. Newly engaged, “I didn’t like that risk hanging over my head,” Simon says.
And after Trump was elected, Simon also wanted to be able to participate in democracy.
“I want to be able to vote. I want to be able to do jury duty,” he says. “I’ve been here, I’ve paid taxes, I’ve contributed to local charities, I want to have some kind of say of how this place that becomes my home is run, and what our values are. The United States is my home now.”
But the process was not easy.
“It annoys me when I hear negative rhetoric about immigrants who’ve come here,” he says. “All of us have fought to come here. We made a very conscious choice. The government probably has 5,000 copies of my fingerprints. It costs a lot of money, and it takes a lot of time. I have a stack of paper a foot tall that’s all of my immigration files over the years.”
Waiting for the paperwork to go through wasn’t easy, either. A few weeks ago, Simon’s grandfather passed away in the U.K. He didn’t go home, as he was waiting for a date to be naturalized, and “they don’t give you a lot of notice.”
But earlier this month, that day finally came. Like other immigrants in the Bay Area, Simon trekked over to the Paramount Theatre in Oakland for the ceremony.
“The entire bottom section of the theater is just filled,” he says. “There were 1,233 people being sworn in. I was really impressed that they made it very meaningful and very important feeling. They read out the name of every country of origin of people there, and people stood up as their country was read out. Slowly everyone got to their feet. They made it this really nice coming together of this huge diverse crowd into one experience.”
Overdue for a trip back to the U.K. to see family, Simon applied for a passport immediately. When he gets it, that’s when he thinks his citizenship will feel real.
“I’ve felt much the same way about living here, and my part in the U.S. for a long time,” he says. “Those tangible things are going to be what feels super-real about it.” Nuala Sawyer
Country of Origin: Australia
It was January 2000 when Viki accepted a job at a tech company in San Francisco. She packed her bags, moved across the world for her career — and found love, one month after setting foot in California. Less than a year after that, her company went bust.
“While work brought me here, love kept me here,” Viki says.
But the process wasn’t an easy one.
“I’ve had a very long, arduous journey from work visas to a green card to citizenship,” she says. After her work visa disappeared with the company she moved here for, she scrambled to find an employer willing to sponsor her. That process took about six months — and she had to return to Australia to apply, all the while worrying about the future of her relationship.
So Viki flew from Sydney to Korea to Canada. Her partner Kathy, a U.S. citizen, drove up from San Francisco, and the two spent six weeks in Vancouver waiting for Viki’s visa to be approved.
“It was actually my birthday when I got to pick up my shiny new visa,” she says. “The next day, we drove back together across the border.”
But as she’d already experienced, work visas are not the most secure way to stay in the U.S. Viki’s green card took six years to come through, just as the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional — a double whammy of good luck.
But by that point, Viki and Kathy had already tied the knot. On May 18, 2011, the 10-year anniversary of getting together, they went back to Vancouver, where gay marriage was already legal.
“We had a little ceremony in a hotel, and went out and had dinner that night,” Viki says.
But her story doesn’t end with a green card and a marriage abroad. In March of this year, she and Kathy walked into the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, where Viki was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
“I thought it was a wonderful service. It was uplifting, it was remarkable,” she says. “Like everybody there I felt so proud, and everyone was so happy. It was so welcoming, and everything about it was so different from what we were seeing in the media and the climate in the country.”
On her way out of the theater, she registered to vote. And then, the pair went to a diner across the street.
With her citizenship, and marriage, secure, Viki says there’s a weight off her shoulders. “There’s certainly a sense of a relief, because a green card isn’t guaranteed,” she says. “I do have a feeling of belonging, too. The National Anthem never affected me, in the 16-odd years I’ve lived here. But it does now. Whenever I hear it, it really, really affects me.” NS
Country of Origin: Iran
Sunset resident and former Downtown jewelry shop owner Moussa, 81, came from Tehran by way of France in 1989. The effects of his country’s instability on his children were foremost concerns in his decision to leave Iran.
Air France helped secure French visas for him and two of his children, who each have special needs. (The pilots at his longtime employer were like family to him, Moussa says.) But the Iran-Iraq War — which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and exacerbated his children’s needs — kept them from doing so until 1984.
After about five years in France — and learning to speak French alongside his native Farsi — Moussa applied for American green cards to bring his four children, his wife, and himself to San Francisco, where his mother-in-law lives.
But why leave Europe? Moussa says that in France, even families who had been there for two or three generations weren’t considered “Frenchmen,” and that Europeans are quicker to point out different countries of origin. Here, people have come from all over the world for centuries.
While his family became citizens years ago, Moussa was engaged in legal battles with his brother over land he owned. That, and the antique shop he ran in Iran required frequent travel there. Eventually, he put what he had left in his best friend’s name and applied for U.S. citizenship in 2016.
Iran is among the countries targeted in all three versions of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, but Moussa says neither the restrictions nor increased racial tensions have affected him, at least here in San Francisco. Though his best times were in Iran before the 1979 revolution, his native country has dramatically changed — and he doesn’t think he’ll ever return.
“It’s a country where, if you don’t go inside, you don’t know what’s going on,” Moussa says of Iran. “[America] is the best country.”
His time here hasn’t been easy. Soon after arriving, he opened Paris Jewelry downtown with $10,000, but he had to close it last January after the rent rose to $12,500.
Still, he’s happy with the ability to come to the country. His daughter and son live with him, while two of his other sons are now married and have kids. Earlier this year, he attended his citizenship ceremony and says he won’t ever forget it.
“I am now American,” he says. “I am free now.” IM
Country of Origin: Guyana
Carolyn is one of those rare people to hold or have held citizenships in three countries — or, at least, she thinks she does. Born in Guyana in 1971, she immigrated to Toronto with her family, taking Canadian citizenship in 1978. If she were to travel back to Guyana, a multiethnic, English-speaking country on the Caribbean coast of South America with a population smaller than San Francisco’s, she might have to petition the government about her formal status.
“I don’t know if I’m a Guyanese citizen, but I would have had a Guyanese passport or at least been under my parents’ passport at the time,” she says, adding, “My birth certificate is still this long piece of parchment paper.”
Growing up in Ontario, she met, fell in love with, and married a Detroit native, and the two would travel back and forth across the border. Moving to California for a job, she decided it was “Toronto in a warmer climate: cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse.” Divorcing her husband, Carolyn got her green card in 2006 by applying for it at a border crossing.
“I went to Buffalo and just petitioned for it,” she says. “Because I was in rehabilitation counseling and that was one of the NAFTA jobs, I had to take all my credentials — and I was awarded it. It’s very stressful to show up and ask for it and potentially be denied.”
She knows people who’ve lived comfortably “for 20 or 30 years” renewing their green cards as required, but after a subsequent relationship yielded twins, Carolyn felt pressure to acquire the same nationality as her children. Currently a community college counselor, she petitioned for citizenship in September 2016.
“I didn’t really know what it would look like,” she says, “but how cool would it be to a citizen in the Obama era?”
Never an especially political person, Carolyn admits to crying the night Donald Trump was elected president — and her citizenship application acquired a new dimension, as the right to vote suddenly became more important to her.
She became a naturalized American in February, two weeks after Trump’s inauguration. Expecting the ceremony to be dry and formal, she mostly hoped they didn’t “have a video of him speaking, or I’ll just want to throw up.” So she was caught off-guard by an emcee who spoke 12 languages — with varying degrees of fluency — and a video welcome by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was a Czech refugee when her family arrived in the U.S. in 1948.
“It was just such a warm, positive experience — and then I became very emotional,” Carolyn says. “Having grown up in very multicultural Toronto and my friends being from all different communities and language backgrounds, that’s something that I hold onto.”
“I’m such a proud Canadian, too,” she adds. “I just felt like, ‘I’m still a Canadian, no matter what!’ ” PLK
Country of Origin: Philippines
Born in the Laguna province of the Philippines, Angelina was working in hotels — some under contract in Kuwait — until a friend set her up with a pen pal.
That pen pal, a Kentucky widower named Fred, eventually proposed, and they married in 1990, when he was about 60 years old and she was 31. They lived on the beach in Port Charlotte, Fla. — a lifestyle his career as a successful businessman afforded them.
Instead of continuing as a hotel worker, Angelina ran a souvenir shop for four years while pushing for kids they never ended up having and applying for citizenship twice, in the 1990s.
“I thought if you’re married to an American, it’s automatic [that] you’re a citizen, but it doesn’t work that way,” she says. “It’s not free.”
Things got tougher after Fred died in 2013, when Angelina says his adult children inherited everything and evicted her from her home. If her sister didn’t live in Bernal Heights, she would have no choice but to return to the Philippines (instead of merely driving a big U-Haul truck for five days across the country by herself).
The complications grew. Without citizenship, she was unable to petition to bring her mother from the Philippines. In 2014, Angelina went to the Philippines to care for her for 10 months — more than the six months allowed for foreign visits as a permanent resident — before her mother passed away last year.
Angelina switched to California souvenirs with a store in Daly City, but our southern neighbors aren’t a major tourist destination. She closed it within 10 months.
Part of why Angelina became a citizen was the hope that it would lead to a stable job, but she is still looking for work or hoping to open another souvenir shop. Still, she says she is very happy to have become a citizen in January — after pushing through the hurt of past denials and applying once more last year — and would encourage other immigrants to stay hopeful through the process.
“I really struggled to be a citizen, I really cried,” she says. “It’s a big difference if you’re just an immigrant.” IM
Country of Origin: India
Shruti was only 4 when she first set foot on American soil. She and her mother arrived in California together, following her father to Pleasanton, where he’d found a job.
The move was not meant to be permanent. But as Shruti began preschool, then kindergarten and first grade, her parents realized the opportunities that were available. They had a second child and settled into life in the Bay Area.
And she had a good childhood.
“I’m definitely a bit of a unicorn, as I’ve never experienced any kind of racism,” Shruti says. “As a brown girl in the U.S., that seems so rare! I don’t know if I was just fielded away from it or if I was super-lucky.”
There was a sense of being different. Her packed lunches always contained Indian food, and she’d sometimes be stopped when wearing traditional Indian clothes.
“But anyone who approached us would just be curious,” she says. “We had a fairly welcoming and diverse environment where I grew up.”
In 2001, Shruti and her parents applied for green cards to solidify their legal status. It took a total of 10 years to process them, but the family finally received permanent-resident status in 2011.
“Once we got our green cards, we had to wait five years before applying for citizenship — plus another year or so for paperwork to go through,” Shruti says. Earlier this year, she and her parents received word that they would be sworn in as naturalized residents at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland.
“I remember I had a flight to catch that day, it was so hectic!” she says. “I need to become a citizen, then I had to get on a plane. It was a cold morning in February in Oakland, and there was so much excitement in the air. Everyone was in it together.”
Having spent the majority of her life in the United States, Shruti was not expecting the high emotions. Separated from her parents, she sat alone.
“I had a moment where I was just sitting there, and it hit me that I was going to be a citizen of this country,” she says.
But the reality really sank in when she traveled abroad with her American passport for the first time, flying to Germany with friends this September.
“I remember freaking out the night before, wondering if I had all my documents, and then realized I just needed a passport,” she says. “And then coming back and being in the citizen line. It was really cool.
“I gave the customs official my passport,” she adds, “and he barely glanced at it before he said I was good to go.” NS