Two weeks ago, one day after the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution and exactly 219 years after George Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C., I went to Atlanta and wept. But don’t worry these were not tears of sadness but rather tears of joy: I raised my right hand and swore an oath of allegiance to the United States of America. I became a naturalized American citizen.
This is my first column as an American: I am now registered to vote and eagerly await my beautiful new blue passport. This will be my third passport color since my original very dark blue British passport was replaced by my European Union red one due to increased European integration in the early 1990s. Of course I will always have a deep affinity for the land of my birth, but as I have said before my love of the USA started soon after I fell in love with my American husband 17 years ago. Over the years, especially since moving here, this has now ripened into a deep and abiding passion for this wonderful country and the philosophy behind it.
For those of you born within the 50 states or the U.S. territories, you may be surprised to learn how much it takes to become a naturalized citizen — and in my opinion it is quite right that it is not an easy process. I have written before of the lengths I had to go through to achieve “legal alien” status and acquire my green card a few years ago. That included a lot of paperwork, interviews and highly personal and expensive medical tests.
This was all just a warm up for applying for citizenship. The process begins with a detailed application form, supported by huge amounts of documentation, including copies of birth and marriage certificates, tax returns, a list of all travel outside the U.S. since relocation, including the length of time spent out of the country and the reason, any criminal convictions, memberships in any organizations, etc. Despite this huge and daunting administrative and background checking process, I must say I was very impressed with the efficiency of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) as my application took less than four months to be processed.
The next steps in my journey:
• I was summoned to a USCIS office in Charleston for full biometric screening plus discussion of any issues that came out of an FBI background check. Thankfully, Uncle Sam forgave my minor travel violations!
• Then I waited. This period really did remind me of the classic story of the lovesick teenager waiting for a love letter to arrive in the mail (no doubt written before email and texting took over). Would Uncle Sam want me? Our mail lady probably thought I was stalking her last month.
• Finally, my letter arrived. It seemed that Uncle Sam just might want me after all, and I was summoned to Atlanta for an interview the next week.
Did you know that you have to pass a civics test as well as verbal, written and reading English tests to be eligible for citizenship? As English is my first language (even if it is not American English) I was not worried about that part, but I did study hard for my civics test. I kept making my poor husband test me from the information provided by the USCIS and listened to the accompanying CD in the car with the questions and answers dozens of times until I knew all 100 answers to the possible 100 questions (although you only have to get six out of 10 right).
These range from geography (e.g. name the current US territories — Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands), civics (there are 27 amendments to the Constitution), history (the Louisiana Territory was bought from France in 1803), the Founding Fathers (did you know that Benjamin Franklin started the first free libraries?), politics (naming the current speaker of the House — John Boehner) and so on.
On the big day itself, we showed up, went through airport-style security and were given a number and told to wait in one of several huge and busy waiting areas. Once called in, my USCIS officer was very professional and polite. Before we started and he asked me to sit down, I had to swear to tell the truth. He then spent a lot of time discussing my background, verifying my information and generally trying to determine that I am an honest, tax-paying, clean-living person who absolutely supports the U.S. and the Constitution. I then passed the civics test, and finally he told me that I was recommended for approval of citizenship. They had a spot in this afternoon’s ceremony, and would I like to stay and attend? Oh boy would I.
The ceremony was solemn and uplifting. I swore an oath of allegiance to the United States of America, promised to serve in the military, if necessary, and to uphold the U.S. Constitution. There were 39 of us from 25 countries sworn in that day, and many of the people in that room had stories that were touching, uplifting and inspiring.
I left Atlanta as a U.S. citizen and I could not be more pleased or proud. One nice touch is that we were given a large information pack, including a letter from the president and a Citizen’s Almanac full of excellent presidential quotes. I leave you with one from Calvin Coolidge in1924 with which I am particularly enamored: “American citizenship is a high estate. It has been secured only by untold toil and effort. It will be maintained by no other method. It demands the best that men and women have to give. But it likewise awards its partakers the best there is on earth.”
God Bless America and thank you for making me one of your own!
Lesley grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.