Choosing Sides: New Citizen, New Activist

Photo: Nitesh Meena

Photo: Nitesh Meena

This is a slightly different kind of piece for us but we’ve been thinking a lot about how to come to terms with the changing situation in this country and how it’s impacting us on a personal level and in our everyday lives. Claire Fitzsimmons, Storefront Institute’s Director, wrote this soon after becoming an American Citizen and it’s really about trying to find a new footing in which to live here, in a new role, with new responsibilities to herself, her family and her new country.

A few years ago my British friend became an American citizen. We held a huge party at his home in California, we celebrated with flags and steaks on the grill. Like a true Englishman, he was bashful but proud.

In early January, just before Obama signed off and Trump took over, I became an American citizen. This time, we didn’t hold a party. Rather than high-five congratulations, my American friends said things like, “You sure you don’t want to rethink this?” and “Why would you want to do that?” I’d got the timing wrong. I’d joined a different America than my friend who came before me, and a different America than the one I’d lived in for the past ten years.

My oath-swearing ceremony was held at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre — a strikingly beautiful, carefully restored Art Deco Cinema. The venue was no accident: this was the gilded age of the American Dream, this was American splendor, this was America with a capital A and three exclamation points. This was glitter and promise and hope. This was still the version that us immigrants were clinging onto. We were that promise. We were welcome.

On the day I took the Oath, 1028 people from 94 countries took it with me. I know this because the person leading the ceremony called out each and every one of the countries of the people represented. She asked that we stand up when our country of origin was called. She also asked us not to clap as each nation was mentioned but to say “Yay” or something short and positive so we could get out of there in under a few hours. Then as she ran through the countries, people around the auditorium stood to claim their original nations.

The guy to my left stood up, Canada; the woman to his left, Belarus. To my right South Korea. Many many people from Mexico, Ecuador, China, India. Not so many from my part of the world — I saw someone from Croatia stand. Down the row someone from France. As people rose around me, I continued to sit. The United Kingdom, at the end of the alphabet, was almost last. I notice those standing started to look at me, and wonder — where are you from? Who claims you? Who are you? Then my nation was called and I stood and wobbled a little because the UK was, is, my home and my identity, and this, this America, what was that? That confusing moment, of claiming a past and grasping for a future was a little like having your ex-husband walk you up the aisle and hand you over to your new love. It could cut both ways. Around me, people cried: relief, joy, acceptance, grief? Very different stories had brought this room of over a thousand people to this same point in their lives.

Long before Trump, I’d struggled to arrive at this moment. I’d grown up in Manchester, studied in Edinburgh, lived in London in my twenties. When I turned 30, I got the offer of a job in San Francisco and I moved here for a year with my new husband. That year became ten. Then green cards. Then two kids born here. And as they grew, so did the pressure to commit to our new life, our new country. They were like kids of parents who are still unmarried; they wanted us to commit.

My seven-year-old son who boasts of being bilingual — “American and English” — has been questioning where my real home is. When I said in the car the other day that “Americans are crazy”, he said, “But mum, I’m an American.” His British accent is starting to shift, he says “dude”, and “trash”, and “route” the wrong way. He plays Little League baseball, he favors pb&j’s for lunch and he’s negotiating his way through second-grade and elementary school. As he ages, as his words shift with his appearance, he’s becoming increasingly American. And this is his home.

This has become my home too — I have adapted to the California way. I no longer roll my eyes when someone comments on the ‘energy’ of anything, I’ve tempered my natural sarcasm, I’ve dropped “Can’t be bothered” from my vocabulary. I’m less cynical, more positive. I chat with the check-out people about why I’ve brought what I’ve brought and what I’m going to cook that night. I make eye contact and say, “Have a nice day”. I buy “groceries”.

But then I have what my son doesn’t: a longing, like almost all expats, for a different home. This manifests in odd shapes — for M&S and Boots, for fish and chips and lamb korma, for a landscape that makes sense to me in all its quiet beauty and single-lane roads. I long for my family too — parents, brothers, in-laws — and friends who we trip into once a year and connect with in fits and starts in the long months apart.

There’s the pull of a past life, but increasingly, there is the pull of a future. A community that we love. A home that we’re renovating, very slowly, wall by wall. Lives, careers, and relationships that have taken shape here. And also, most significantly, kids who might choose not just to grow up here but to be grown-ups here. To study, and marry, and work. I couldn’t envisage a future where I’d be cut off from them, where a visa would mean I could only be in their lives for three months a year. I didn’t want that for them or me.

As we collectively pledged the Oath of Allegiance, I chose my American Family — my own that I’d created, one that involved two British parents negotiating a culture that is in many ways anathema to us but is a happy playground for our kids.

But in that room that day, I realized that there was another American family to be dealt with. As a new citizen, I was joining the “American family”. Obama’s words. His welcome. That morning in Oakland, each new citizen was given a pack and in it was a large envelope marked “The White House” top left and “A Message from the President of the United States” dead center. Inside was a (digitally) signed letter from Obama on White House stationery saying: “Dear Fellow American” — whoosh of pride — and this:

“Since our founding, generations of immigrants have come to this country full of hope for a brighter future, and they have made sacrifices in order to pass that legacy onto their children and grandchildren. This is the price and promise of citizenship. You are part of this precious history, and you serve an an inspiration to those who will come after you.”

Well if that’s the case, then okay Obama, I’m in.

It was this version of America that permeated that day, promises of liberty, hope and equality, and an overwhelming openness to us, its new people. During the ceremony, we watched movies praising America’s history and its land (if you’ve been to Disneyworld you know exactly what these movies are, booming soundtrack, inspirational quotes, sweeping vistas). Madeleine Albright gave a big-screen speech on being a Czechoslovakian immigrant who then became Secretary of State. Then more of Obama in another video welcoming us to the United States.

This being America, there were also long boring admin speeches about getting passports, signing up to vote and changing our social security details. There was singing, choirs belting out patriotic tunes and of course the impossible-to-sing national anthem. There were even tiny American flags handed out as we arrived that in my cynicism I scoffed at; more people waved those flags than I expected. They had visibly bought into the American Dream. Those tiny flags meant the world.

In the run-up to this moment, we’d taken steps to grasp America’s history, it’s constitution, its governing structures by taking a Citizenship Test. We’d learned a language of acceptance of immigrants, an openness of those who were born beyond American borders. We’d learned what it meant to be a good citizen here. We understood the importance of Checks and Balances. That Nobody is Above the Law. We’d learned that in the Declaration of Independence there were rights to the “Freedom to express myself”, “Freedom to worship as you wish”, and “Freedom to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. We also learned that as a Citizen, amongst our Responsibilities would be: “Support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and “Respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others”.

We’d learned how to be an American but in the vein of 2016. Those words, and the ceremony’s imprecation to be a good citizen, to uphold American values, to be a part of the history of this nation, already seems like a historical anomaly.

What had I learned? And why? Since then I’ve wondered whether people here who are already citizens — including our new President, his administration, and Congress — know, or even care about all of the above, the beliefs and responsibilities that they signed up for at birth rather than at forty. I’ve started to feel like someone who has learned a language and become better at it than a natural speaker; someone who speaks the Queen’s English better than the going-back-five-generations neighbors down the street.

But there’s a power in knowing how something should be, what an idealized version is. I know that immigrants have been woven into America’s history, that no one person is above all others, that democracy is open to everyone and not just white men of a certain age.

So as Trump in his first weeks as a new president realized his version of America, as he banned refugees, withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, took initiatives to build The Wall with Mexico, and shifted federal funding for foreign family planning initiatives, in my first weeks as a new citizen I fought for the America that I joined: I donated to the American Civil Liberties Union, lobbied my Congress and members of Trump’s new Advisory Council, signed up for alerts from Wall-of-Us and then like a good student followed the four concrete actions a week that it advocated, I paid for the news I consume, and signed petitions against Trump’s executive orders.

As I’ve done this I’ve realized that the America I know hasn’t gone away, it’s now becoming a vocal movement to resist changes. The one where an estimated 4.6 million American’s joined a Women’s March, one where Washington, Massachusetts and New York sued Trump over his immigration order, where thousands protested at airports, where 25% of Americans say they plan on being more politically active this year, and where there is already a fervent campaign to Impeach Trump because of a breach of the Emoluments Clause (a recent poll claims 4 in 10 people are already in favour). I joined the America that is coming together to fight.

As things are looking bleaker, and bleaker, the changes are getting closer to home. Recently, I read about a draft order that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to deport legal permanent residents (which my husband is) who use social services. We’ve talked about sitting this presidency out, of going back to the UK. But that doesn’t look so good. That side of the pond doesn’t look like a sanctuary against some of these measures, particularly given the hand-holding visit by Theresa May to Washington and her moves to woo and then ever so softly condemn the US. Instead, we choose to stay and fight for our new country. To realize that we the people are coming together, saying not on our watch, saying we’re with each other. Is that what they meant by one nation indivisible? Someone tell Trump.

Since my Oath Ceremony and Trump’s inauguration, I’ve wondered how our new president would do on that Citizenship Test, how he would respond to sitting in that auditorium with all those people becoming “Fellow Americans”, and what his letter and address to them would look like? Would he write the same message to those immigrants turned citizens as President Obama’s?

“You have sworn a solemn oath to this country, and you share in its privileges and responsibilities. Our democratic principles and liberties are yours to uphold through active and engaged participation. I encourage you to be involved in your community and to promote the values that guide us as Americans: hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance, and curiosity, loyalty, and patriotism.”

I doubt it. But it was Obama’s presidency that welcomed my Citizenship and it is his words that I choose to follow, along with those other 1,208, from all over the world, who joined the American family that day in the belief that they could be stronger together. That bit’s on us now.