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Monday, January 29, 2007

Steps to Citizenship [very long post]

The Application

On May 5th of 2005, after a wait of three years (my spouse is an American Citizen so I only had to wait three years rather than the usual five), I became eligible to apply for United States Citizenship. In preparation, I had downloaded the application forms from the Homeland Security website and started to fill them out. Most questions were easy, though some gave me pause – would contributing to John Kerry’s campaign render me a member of a subversive group? What about being a card-carrying member of the ACLU – almost a requirement for those of us living in liberal Massachusetts? Or even Common Cause? And what about working for the gubernatorial candidacies of Robert Reich and Deval Patrick – they’re all about upsetting the status quo. Does that make me a subversive? I decided not and I hope that Homeland Security comes to the same conclusion. The next question that gave me trouble was to fully enumerate the times that I had been outside the United States in the past five years. For the first two of those years I had lived in Toronto while commuting frequently to Boston for conjugal visits with my wife and I had worked here for a couple of summers on a “NAFTA visa.” Fortunately, every year my wife and I throw our old diaries into a sock drawer so I was able to reconstruct the thirty-nine trips that I had taken out of the US (for a total of 469 days, fortunately only 86 were in the three-year period that I had been an US resident). I then had to assemble the needed documentation – marriage certificate and my wife’s birth certificate.

After this burst of activity, the forms sat on our dining room table for months – to the despair of my wife who likes things tidy. I was deeply ambivalent about forswearing allegiance to those foreign powers who had nurtured me in my youth (Wales) and which had been the background of my life for more than thirty years (Canada). It was not easy to take that positive step of renouncing allegiance to Canada – a country where “peace, order and good government” supercedes rugged individualism, a country where national health insurance is a privilege of
residence, and where civil life in Toronto rivals that of Boston. I also wondered whether I wanted to join this country that has, in recent years, “lost its sacred honor” through the waging of unprovoked war, through its extra-legal detention center at Guantanamo Bay, through the White House torture memoranda and the excesses at Abu Ghraib, through the broad-based wiretapping of citizens, and the appalling level of groupthink evident at the highest levels of government. My vacillations took nine months to resolve and I finally decided that living here I wanted to have influence through my vote on the political well being of the country – though one more Democratic vote in Massachusetts is unlikely to be highly influential.

So I got my photographs taken, wrote my check to the Federal Government, and sent off my application. A week later, it was returned. I had miscalculated the fee for the application and the fingerprinting and had come up ten dollars short – it must have been that ambivalence still at work. So I rewrote the check and sent the application back. That goof cost me two weeks in the queue of aspiring citizens.


After two months, I received a letter from Homeland Security inviting me to the Boston office so that I could be fingerprinted. My appointment was for 2.00 p.m. and when I arrived the room was packed – there were at least 140 people ahead of me including about 30 in line to give their names to the receptionist and get a number to put them in line for processing. The line moved forward fairly rapidly – it took about 20 minutes before I was seated on one of the uncomfortable plastic airport seats filling out the required questionnaire – more vital statistics: height, weight, hair color, that was easy, it’s grey, eye color, more difficult they are grey blue, but I opted for blue and hoped I had done the same thing on my application! Then came the interminable wait. I was finally called at 4.00 p.m. I guess the government, unlike business, hasn’t heard of just in time scheduling, or maybe there were just a lot of people –like me – whose prints were very difficult to capture with the new technology. I with several others then moved from the crowded discomfort of the waiting room to the high technology laboratory of the fingerprinting room. Around the room were eight stations where fingerprinting technicians practiced their craft. At each station was a computer attached to a horizontal glass screen bright with a subdued red light.

After entering my vital statistics into the computer, the technician seized my left hand, vigorously scrubbed the four fingers and pressed them lightly to the horizontal glass screen -- my grey prints appeared on the computer screen. It seemed those were unacceptable as the technician pressed a button and they vanished. My fingers were scrubbed again, the horizontal screen was polished, my fingers were pressed to the screen. This time the grey images of whorls and loops were deemed acceptable. My left thumb then received the same treatment. The left hand then was scrubbed and scrutinized and the prints recorded for the FBI. Ah, it is over I thought -- but no, the prints from individual fingers had to be captured on screen. This involved the technician holding the right side of the finger to the screen, starting the scanner, and then rolling the fingertip so that the whole tip had been pressed to the glass plate. This took a long while -- it took two or three attempts to get the print from each finger to be scanned correctly -- sometimes the right-hand side and the center would be clear but the left-hand side would be blurred, sometimes, the center would be smeared, and sometimes the attempt would be terminated in mid-scan.

By 4.30 p.m. I was out on the Boston street and thought “Ah. My application is one step closer to acceptance.” I was wrong! Six weeks later I received another summons from Homeland Security. It curtly told me that the FBI had been unable to process my set of prints and that unless I returned for a second visit, my application would be considered to have been abandoned. At least they did not charge me an additional fee.

This time my appointment was at 8.00 a.m. and the preliminaries went very smoothly. When I arrived at 7.40, there were already 20 people ahead of me in the queue -- about half of them oriental of some sort. I'd not be able to say whether they were Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, Singapore Chinese, or Thai or Indonesian. I have always been cautious about inferring nationality from appearance ever since my embarrassment in one of my classes when I said condescendingly to a group of students "I expect the issue of women in management is very different in your culture." To which, one of the students replied "What does you mean our culture? I am from Singapore, he is from Hong Kong, she is from Indonesia, and he is from Korea!" The rest of us were a mixed bag: blacks, Hispanics, and whites in equal proportions. All in line to become United States citizens. Although our appointments were for 8.00am, the staff had opened the doors early and started processing us at 7.45. I only had to wait about 10 minutes to reach the receptionist and another 10 minutes seated in the waiting room with its
uncomfortable plastic seats locked in ten unyielding rows -- I know because, when standing in line, I tried to pull one of the seats out to sit on it.

Then my number was called and I went to be fingerprinted. Alas, I failed the first hurdle, my hands were grey with printer's ink from that morning's Globe. After an ignominious banishment to the washroom and a good scrubbing, I was deemed clean enough to proceed to the fingerprinting laboratory.

The process went very much as last time – whole hand, thumb and individual finger prints were taken. The first two sets of print taking went smoothly, though with lots of hand cleaning and screen polishing. But the individual fingers took a long time: as before, it took two or three attempts to get the prints scanned correctly -- either I was pressing too hard, or I was not relaxed enough, or I was resisting the technologist as she rolled my fingertip to get a full picture -- whatever it was, it took the technician, and the supervisor a full 15 minutes to get a perfect -- I hope -- set of prints.

I was out of the office by 8.30 -- a really remarkably swift passage through the INS bureaucracy. Now I sit and wait, for what? More fingerprinting or a taxing examination on the American way of life: now just what is the 23rd amendment to the Constitution? Oh yes, that is the one giving the District of Columbia three Electors in the Electoral College.

The Citizenship Test

My test was scheduled for 11.30 in the JFK building – which I discovered from the map was on Cambridge Street in Boston (not Cambridge Street in Cambridge) and was nowhere near the other building named for JFK: the Library on Columbia Point in the Harbor. I was glad I found that out well before my appointment.

Before leaving the house and setting off, I do a final check that I had everything – including three years worth of Federal Tax submissions. I had forgotten those until the previous evening and, as always happens, I had a nasty, panicky half an hour trying to clear a paper jam on our copier/printer. But they were all copied in time. My check revealed that I had my tax forms, my passport, my drivers license, and my Green Card. Fortunately I didn’t need any money as all my fees were paid in advance.

It was a beautiful warm July day as I strolled along the Freedom Trail (wait, I didn’t see any sample Citizenship test questions about Paul Revere. Where did he ride from, and to?). The tourists crowded Kings Chapel burying ground, but the local coffee shop was open so I quickly got a shot of liquid to see me through the coming test. City Hall Plaza’s 1960's brutality was softened by the local Farmer’s Market with good-looking produce on display.

Unlike my previous interaction with the INS, the JFK building was heavily guarded so we all had to go through security scans before entering the building. Then walked for what seemed to be a mile until we reached the room where the dreaded test was to be administered. I arrived to a full room filled with people in their best clothes sitting in those uncomfortable plastic airport seats that the Federal Government provides. The receptionist, busy on the phone, took my invitation/command letter and briefly told me to take a seat.

Looking around the room, one wall was dominated by giant photographs of the President and the vice-president. Other walls had instructions in English and Spanish about what to do: hand in your letter, then sit and wait. Finally over the receptionist’s desk was a tiny photograph, well I guess it was an 8 by 10 print, but compared to the Presidential display it was tiny, of the Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff (Hmm, I hope they don’t expect me to spell that on the test!).

As I sat waiting, I reviewed what people had told me. My friends to a man and woman said: don’t be cute! If they ask who the President is, don’t say Dick Cheney, but George Bush is his front man. Don’t get into a big discussion about how the Electoral College needs reform. Remember that the most recent states are Alaska, Hawaii, and Arizona – the last is easy, If Barry Goldwater had been born a few years earlier in the Arizona territory he could not have run for President. There are 50 white stars on a blue ground, there are thirteen stripes, six white and seven red. They represent the thirteen original states – and they were formally colonies ruled by an earlier King George.

After engaging in these musings, I was called to my examination – only a thirty minute wait. I was very impressed by how short the wait had been. My first interaction with the young lady who was my examiner, discombobulated me. I had expected to sit down across the desk from her, but she asked me to stand in front of the chair and to raise my right hand – I actually managed to get that correct, though when I am driving and am told to take a left turn I often have to think which is left and which is right. I then swore to tell the truth in my answers.

Then I was asked to produce my Green Card, My Passport and my Drivers License. I got the first and last from my wallet easily, but my passport got stuck in my coat pocket and I had to empty its contents, a couple of pens, a bit of paper with the directions to the JFK Building, and a large wadge of paper with my printout of the Constitution and its amendments which I had been studying on the subway, and finally the recalcitrant passport. Needless to say by the time I got everything on the desk in front of her, I was sweating and my hands trembled.

She then asked if I had brought in my tax forms. I had and gave them to her. She started perusing them line by line. Eventually she looked up and asked why I was getting pensions from Canada. I told her that we’d lived and worked there for 35 years.

Then she started to go through my application: how did I meet my wife. I told the wonderful story of how a girl I’d dated in Graduate School had been in High School with Nancy and how, with both of us moving to Toronto in the same month – Nancy for Graduate School, me for a junior faculty position – she had suggested we get in touch. We did and it is almost forty years since that fateful day of our first date.

Pretty soon she moved on to our complex Canada/US commuting arrangements while Nancy
worked as an research scientist in Cambridge and I continued teaching and research in Toronto, Canada. We had over thirty trips in the two years before I immigrated to the US. Fortunately I had spent enough time in the US since immigrating to qualify for citizenship.

Next came the interrogatory: had I ever spent money on a prostitute? No. Had I advocated the overthrow of the US Government? No. In accordance with my friends’ advice I did not qualify my answer with: This Administration, Yes; the Government, No! Had I ever been in prison? No. Had I ever been a Communist? No. Had I been associated with Nazis? No. And so on.

Then came the test. When was the constitution ratified? 1781. WRONG, it was 1787. What is the head of a city government called? The Mayor. Who succeeds to the Presidency if both the President and the Vice-President are incapacitated? Fortunately I had looked that one up last week, the President pro tem of the Senate (and I added as a bonus that Ted Stevens was the current incumbent). She smiled for the first time. How many Senators are there: Fifty? No, a hundred.

This was followed by an English test. I was required to read a simple sentence and then take dictation on another simple sentence. That I could do.

Finally, I was told that my application could not yet be given preliminary approval. The FBI was still on my case and had not yet given clearance. I asked how much longer that would take. She replied that they couldn’t really tell, some people were cleared in a few week, others took several months. They’d let me know when it was done. I had to be satisfied with that answer and walked out into the Boston sunshine, bought a fresh loaf at the Farmer’s market and went home, one step nearer my goal of U.S. citizenship.

Waiting, waiting, ...waiting. And finally taking the Oath of Allegiance.

My test and interview had been in June. My swearing in was in November so I waited for four long months to hear whether I had been successfully cleared by the FBI. Despite the wait, I think that from applying in March to being accepted in November showed the INS at its expeditious best.

While waiting, I carried on with my usual weekly schedule: volunteering with Deval Patrick’s campaign, reading for the blind, attending research seminars at Harvard, MIT, and Brandeis, and volunteering at Common Cause.

There were a couple of low points. The INS has a wonderful on-line system whereby an applicant can track the progress of his/her case. Sometime in August, my case disappeared from the on-line files, so being a worrier I started worrying about what might have happened – failed the FBI screening, a lost case file, or something worse: immanent extraordinary rendition back to Wales. My fears were set at rest by a casual conversation with an immigration lawyer that I met. He said that this happened all the time: just a computer glitch.

The second low point was when President Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act in mid-October. This removed habeas corpus protections from aliens who were deemed to have “purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States”. As I write extensively, but rarely get published, about politics with a strong level of opposition to the current administration, my worry turned to paranoia. As I said in an unpublished letter to the Boston Globe:

“Call me paranoid if you like but I am getting a little bit scared. I am a Green Card Holder and am, I hope, in the last stages of getting my U.S. citizenship. I also frequently write letters to the newspapers, mostly unpublished, decrying the actions of the current administration.

Today the President signed into law a bill that removes Habeas Corpus safeguards from Green Card Holders if they are deemed to "give material aid" to terrorists.

If I write that terrorist suspects should receive the benefits of Habeas Corpus, is that giving material aid?

If I write that the US reliance on the State Secrets defense in the Arar and el-Masri cases is misguided, is that giving material aid?

If I write that retrospective legislation indemnifying US agents against war crimes is odious (Boston Globe, August 13th. 2006), is that giving material aid?

If I write that this administration has shown a contempt for international law, for the Geneva Convention, and for the Vienna Protocol on consular relations, is that giving material aid?

I hope not. But I am no longer sure and that is why I am just a little bit scared.”

Fortunately my worries were for naught and just a week later I received my summons to attend a Citizenship ceremony at the Hynes Center in Boston. The Hynes – that’s huge, they must be going to induct a whole lot of people. Yes, as I read on, I was told to arrive at 9.00 am and that the ceremony would last six, yes six hours. That does sound like a whole lot of people. To our surprise there was no information in the letter about whether or not one could bring guests and what accommodations would be made for them. The INS would be a whole lot more welcoming if they provided a flyer giving that information.

We had little information from the INS about the role that guest might play, but we assumed that guests would be permitted to attend, so my wife drove me into Boston for the Citizenship Ceremony. We arrived at the Hynes at about 8.50 for our 9.00 am appointment. We entered into a large hanger like exhibition hall were we were triaged into three groups: Line 1, Line 2, and family. To our surprise, family members were shunted upstairs to the balcony of the auditorium while the citizens-in-waiting joined the long lines snaking across the exhibition hall – alas no exhibits on display to distract us. We were also told that the swearing in ceremony would not begin until 1.00pm or perhaps 1.30. My wife, who has a busy week at work, like all her weeks, elected to go back to work and return to see the ceremony at 12.45 p.m.

We were told to have available our letters calling us to the ceremony and our Green Cards. My line moved fairly rapidly and led me to an escalator up to the next floor. We were instructed to get out our forms and our Green Cards. Prior to coming to the Ceremony we had each filled in the forms swearing that we had not become Communists or criminals in the past four months. Then up the escalator to a walk along a passage that ran the whole frontage of the Hynes Center. At the end there was a cluster of people with clipboards, each of us was quickly assigned to a clipboard burdened employee and had our forms briefly reviewed and we were “checked in.” Then we were directed to the Table to which our form indicated. Several people sat at the table
and one person stood at the end nearest the queue and greeted us by asking to see our Green Card. She then called out the Alien Registration Number; one of the people sitting, checked the card number and responded with a “Yes,” then the greeter seized my Green Card and threw it unceremoniously into a bin!

By 9.20 we were through the complete check in and entered the Hynes auditorium. We were guided politely but firmly to our row of seats – no gaps allowed, no saving places for friends, just sit where you are told and we settled down for the wait until the 1.00p.m. ceremony. The Hynes auditorium still had the enormous flag from the previous evening’s Deval Patrick victory rally – we didn’t attend because we had to make an early start for my Oath Taking. As we sat waiting, the occasional piece of confetti from the night before gently floated down on to the heads of the waiting crowd.

Fortunately we did not have to sit there all that time, though as far as I could tell most people did. By 12.15 with two additional influxes of citizens-in-waiting, there were 1804 of us sitting in the room. But before that, I took advantage of obtaining a “restroom pass” and spent a little time phoning Nancy and wandering around the mall.

Most of the people sitting waiting quietly were dressed in Western clothes, through there were a few Indians in Saris, Arab women with modest head scarves and African men in dashiki shirts. During the time we were waiting, names were called for people whose check in process had gone awry – fortunately not mine.

At about 12.30, we were called to order and told what to expect. Shortly the District Court Judge would arrive and her presence would turn this enormous auditorium into a branch of the Court. We were all to rise on the call of the clerk and we weren’t to leave until the INS personnel told us to -- and that wouldn’t happen until all the guests had left the building. He also mentioned that in the guest section were a bunch of children from a local school, smartly dressed in their school uniforms, who had come to the ceremony to support one of the school’s food service staff who
was becoming a citizen.

Soon after this, the judge and her procession entered the auditorium. It included the clerk of the court, an INS representative and two small children.

The Ceremony was soon under way. First the INS representative introduced the fact that about 350 people wished to change their names and that these wishes had been investigated and did not represent a security threat to the United States. The judge allowed the name changes to proceed.

Then he stated that 1804 people wished to become US Citizens, that we had been investigated and deemed to be worthy citizens. We then rose and repeated the oath of allegiance, line by line.

We then were shown how to pledge allegiance to the flag by the two children in the procession and we then did that too.

Then the judge made a few remarks about her family’s immigrant background, about the service men who were getting their citizenship, and the opportunities that were opening up to us in the years ahead. Unfortunately, as the ceremony began at 12.40, and as Nancy did not get back to the auditorium until 12.45, she did not see me take the oath or the pledge and just caught the last half of the judge’s remarks. We were a bit upset at the misinformation we had received about the time of the ceremony.

That was it, the judge’s procession left the auditorium. No calling of country names to identify the polyglot group that we surely were -- my neighbors in my row of seats were from Morocco and from Columbia; no political big wig to welcome us to the country – all, no doubt exhausted from the recent campaign.

We then waited to leave the auditorium and pick up our Citizenship Certificates. Fortunately they used the FIFO system: first in, first out. So we 9.00 am veterans got to leave first. But we were carefully enjoined to go back to the same table where we had checked in. There we handed in our forms, which most had been clutching throughout, and received our Certificates of American citizenship.

Then I passed out of the auditorium and into the mall for lunch with Nancy and into a new life in an America that was a lot bluer than it had been the evening before.

1 comment:

Gledwood said...

All that green card stuff is indeed a nightmare to go through. Our country (UK) is getting far stricter about who we allow in to work and under what conditions and for how long ... it's a shame, but lots of people have been taking advantage of the system ...

I found you quite by chance by the Blogger "next blog" button.

Come by my blog if you like. It's in a diary format ... quite different to yours ...

All the Best,
Take care,