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USA, Land of Dreams and Happiness? Citizenship and its Hopes and Obstacles

For some it literally represents the possibility of life, but how do we value things? The critical sense told through two stories of immigration

Naturalization ceremony at the Grand Canyon National Park. (Wikimedia.commons)

Stories are not all the same and they don’t have the same value, even when they look similar. And without critical sense, based on knowledge and comparison, it is hard to recognize and understand those differences and we may end up making wrong evaluations. There are millions of immigration stories but they’re all different and with different dynamics and importance. Considering them all the same is just wrong.

Before telling you my story, I’d like to tell you Shayenne Gal’s. She was born in Israel in August 1993. In 1998, when she was 5 years old, her father was able to get an H-1B work visa that allowed him to legally put foot on the American ground with his wife and daughter. Please keep in mind how hard it is to get a work visa (which requires valid motivations), from abroad and without knowing anyone. After a year living under their visas, the family applied for green cards, which is the document that grants the status of ‘permanent resident’, necessary to obtain citizenship. It took three years to process the request that, in the end, was denied due to a mislabeling issue on their application. Time and money thrown away, more time to wait to apply again and more money to start all over again, this time with the help of a skilled legal counsel. This time there are no mistakes, they just have to wait.

The processing times are affected by several factors and vary from case to case; just think that in May 2020 the green card backlog was so massive that they were issuing those requested in 1996. And, of course, during the 12 years in total that the family spent waiting for a decision, Shayenne’s father had to renew his temporary work visa five times, while his wife and daughter couldn’t legally work because their visas didn’t allow them to do so. At this point of the story, Shayenne is in high school and she’s living in a very precarious situation: at any moment she could be sent back home with her family, being forced to interrupt her studies which represent her future, made of money, time and energy invested for the renowned pursuit of happiness, an inalienable right of  human beings. It’s no small thing, especially if you’re among those who believe in the follow-your-dream philosophy: how can you dream when they keep you constantly awake and on the alert?

Luckily, in 2010 after 6 years, the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service) approved the permanent resident status: they’re now halfway through the naturalization process. Just halfway. Thousands of dollars and twelve years and they are still just midway. But now at least they have access to Social Security benefits, they can legally work and they can travel freely, which they couldn’t do before.

But the real goal is to be full-fledged citizens, to have their rights recognized, to be able to vote. Now five more years have to go by, in which they have to give proof of “good moral character” and regularly file taxes if they don’t want to risk deportation. During this time, Shayenne enrolled at university and finally in 2015, after getting her Bachelor’s degree, she and her family could apply for their citizenship.

The naturalization process includes: a $725 fee (current amount), a biometric session (where they collect your digital prints) and a test to verify your knowledge of oral and written English and the basics of American politics, history and geography. The Gal family had to wait two more years. And then, one Thursday morning of 2017, after a journey of 19 years, Shayenne sat in a ceremony room with other 117 stories: “Despite our differences, the one thing we all related to was our sacrifice, our journey, and our love for the United States”.

Naturalization ceremony at the Grand Canyon National Park (Wikimedia.commons)

This is Shayenne’s story. Mine has nothing to do with it.

In 2017 in Rome, I applied to obtain a green card through marriage. I’m married to an Italian with dual citizenship, born and raised in Italy, who has never lived in the US (visited only during summer vacations for a few years) but with an American mother. We too had some issues with bureaucracy, we actually bumped into an incompetent counsel that made us waste time and money, but we’ve been so lucky to have a family network: parents that helped us with the expenses and American cousins who even took legal liability for me (my husband’s finances weren’t enough to guarantee for me so I needed a sponsor). In the same year, I received my green card, I shipped five boxes, packed four suitcases and I’ve been hosted for 7 months by my husband’s cousins. After 3 years (not 5, because for marriage times are faster), in June 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, I could apply for citizenship.

In May 2021 I got my appointment for the biometric session, in June I passed the test and on July 15, 2021 I sat in a ceremony room too–at the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Manhattan–and I swore loyalty to the United States of America, together with some other 80 people.

After 4 years and a bunch of money (that I really struggled to save but definitely not as much as some others) I got my citizenship, with a process that almost seemed like a ritual, having followed all the requests to the letter. One of the first things that the person in charge of welcoming and explaining the procedure to us of taking the oath said something that struck me: “Don’t worry, relax.  At this point you’re safe and you have nothing to fear”. It was clear he wasn’t talking to me.

These two journeys have two very different values and if I told you a third story, made of violence, denied basic rights, tortures and abuses, lack of valid documents, escapes, illegality, poverty, lack of means, skills and knowledge, in which the American citizenship literally represents a possibility of life, then these two stories would be worth even less.

That’s why I felt very embarrassed when I was super celebrated and received ultra celebrations for my naturalization. Someone even told me “brava” (good job)! I’d like to point out that I deeply appreciate the enthusiasm, I am thankful and grateful and I recognize the true meaning and intentions behind the words addressed to me and I know that this is a big deal, but if I am reticent in such celebrations, what would you say to Shayenne or to those who really have the basic rights granted by this new citizenship?

I didn’t celebrate my naturalization, not because I don’t think it’s important, but because everything needs to be put in the right perspective: I got the citizenship because I could get it, because it’s an extra feature, because I’m living in the States and I’d like to vote, because it’s a plus and not because my life and freedom depended on it, therefore I like to celebrate it accordingly.

I’ll definitely celebrate more next November, when – as a true American – I’ll receive my “I Voted!” sticker.

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