It might seem like an odd time for immigrants to sign up to formally become Americans — after all, Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric showed more antipathy to immigrants (especially Mexicans and Muslims) than any presidential campaign in decades, and his electoral victory indicated that a great many Americans agreed with him.
But as the five new citizens getting naturalized at Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello this July Fourth, whom I spoke to in the days leading up to the ceremony, emphasized, citizenship is also a personal journey.
“When we came here in 2009, I was thinking, when I have to become a US citizen, when I have to become part of this great nation,” says Laique Khan, who emigrated from Pakistan. “That’s what I was thinking when they said, ‘Mr. Khan, you have passed, and I would like to say that you are now becoming a US citizen in the coming month.’ And I was really delighted, I was so happy.”
The fact of it happening on the Fourth of July was just the cherry on top. Khan teased his wife (who was naturalized earlier in a small ceremony) about getting to become a citizen on Independence Day; “I sometimes said, ‘You seem to be jealous of me,’” he jokes.
It’s a choice that isn’t made in a moment, but over years or decades of living in the United States — deciding at the outset to become an American, or realizing it gradually over time. It’s a process that represents a long wait and a lot of sacrifices. And it’s an opportunity to have one’s voice heard going forward.
On the eve of their naturalization, no one in America was more patriotic than the Americans-to-be.
“I knew that I would always make this my permanent home”
Most of the citizens-to-be I spoke to had come to the US as very young children — they’re part of a group that scholars call the “1.5 generation,” because they’re technically first-generation immigrants who came to the US themselves but have lived lives more similar to those of immigrants’ US-born children.
Their parents had come to the US to make more money than they were making in their home countries, or to pursue an educational opportunity or help with a growing family business. But once they got here, they put down roots.
“When we moved to America, my parents thought that we were going to go back,” said Tina Chai, whose family initially came here from China so her father could take a medical research fellowship. But they were impressed by the quality of the education Chai was getting at school, and how “elastic” the curriculum was: Instead of having to study either science or the humanities, Chai could study both in interdisciplinary ways. It paid off: At UVA, she’s preparing for a career in medicine (though “who knows where life will take me,” she says with a laugh) by studying biochemistry as well as English, “because I like to say that English really feeds the soul.”
Economic opportunity could mean upward mobility — Juan Becerra’s parents came from a part of Mexico where there was “nothing much besides working the cornfields” — but it also meant sacrifice. Victor Zarate’s father, who had struggled to find work as a civil engineer in Mexico, found employment in the US in the hospitality industry; he’s now a banquet manager at a country club.
It’s not easy to migrate to the US as an adult — more because of the language barrier, the new citizens said, than anything cultural. “Even though we've been living here for about an equal amount of time,” Chai says of her parents, “they can tell that I'm definitely more of an American than they are — in the sense that I just speak very fluent English.”
“They definitely struggled more with the language barrier and not having that many friends that were American,” Zarate said of his parents. “They didn’t feel part of the community as much as my sister and I did.” But he stresses that the whole family “just put ourselves out there,” making friends with Americans and “trying to do a lot of what Americans were doing,” and that it ultimately paid off.
“When I came,” says Khan, the only new citizen I spoke to who immigrated as an adult, “everybody said that it lasts one, two, three years each” to adjust — to get comfortable enough, personally and professionally, to find a career in the States. “You have to start real hard,” he admits, but “after three and four years, each week goes better and better and better — and that's life.”
The younger generation appreciates these sacrifices intellectually — but knows that they don’t, fundamentally, see the US the same way their parents do.
“My dad talks about how hard it is to get here and how hard it is to be successful here,” says Athina Patac, who came to the US from the Philippines when she was young. “But I just don't understand because I didn't grow up the way that he grew up in a Third World country.”
Most of the other new citizens I talked to haven’t been back to their home countries much either. Zarate is returning to his hometown of San Miguel de Allende, which he describes as “one of the biggest tourist destinations in Mexico,” for a brief internship after he becomes a citizen, and is looking forward to riding around on horseback and seeing the local museums — “doing things with my family, things I never got to do growing up.”
They’ve never really had the chance to think of themselves as anything but American.
“Being young, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be Mexican or American. I just knew that my home was in Mexico,” Zarate said. “But after a couple of years living in the US, I liked it here; all my friends are here right now. I knew that I would always make this my permanent home.”
“I think I was too young to really identify myself with any country at the time when I came,” says Chai. “But then I turned, I would say, maybe 13 or 14, and that's when I kind of saw myself as American — in the sense that, you know, this is where I've been growing up for so long, this is where my friends are, where my parents are, where my heart is.”
“Always. I've always considered myself an American,” says Patac. “I've always considered myself, I guess, the same as everybody else. I didn't even put a title on my nationality, like whether or not I was a citizen of the Philippines or a citizen of the United States.” Only when her Filipino passport expired when she was in college did she even think seriously about her citizenship — “and then it was just like, oh, my gosh, so I need to get my life in order right now.”
The road to citizenship hasn’t been bumpy — but it’s been long
When you’ve grown up American in your heart, becoming one on paper might seem like an inevitability. “I didn’t really decide anything,” says Chai; “it just sort of fluidly occurred.”
But the process isn’t automatic. For Becerra, it ultimately took some help from a Brazilian woman who was running naturalization classes — and a lot of studying because, as a landscaping business owner, he’d forgotten some of the things he needed for the civics test. “It's not like we're studying about historical stuff, you know, we're out there doing lawn care.”
Everyone I talked to was relieved and elated when they officially found out they were going to be naturalized — and realized, finally, just how long they’d been waiting for this moment.
Victor Zarate’s father told him the good news. “He called me and was like, ‘Have you looked?’ and I was like, ‘No’ and he was like, ‘Well, you got it,’” Zarate says. “It was just a great feeling.”
Athina Patac’s husband saw the envelope in the mail; “he Snapchatted me immediately. He's like, ‘Look what I got!’ And I was like, aaaaah! Because we had been waiting for it for so long.”
And for people who’ve lived near Monticello for years, being naturalized there is doubly significant. Zarate’s family was rooting for his naturalization ceremony to be located there (which naturalization ceremony you’re part of is determined by the region where you live); Tina Chai says it has extra significance for her because “now I go to the University of Virginia, which, you know, is Jefferson’s university.”
“I'm a part of history now,” says Patac. “Like I can tell my daughter that ... you know, like, this is how your mother, your grandmother became a citizen here on Independence Day, the national holiday of America.”
It’s not about Trump — but it is about the need to have a voice
Of course, as timeless as it is to get naturalized on the Fourth of July, they’re also getting naturalized in 2017 — under a president whose attitude toward immigrants has been chilly at best. Donald Trump has targeted Muslim immigrants like Khan; Mexican immigrants like Becerra and Zarate; even “the Chinese,” like Chai.
For some immigrants, life under Trump has been alienating; for others, it’s inspired them to get citizenship. But for the immigrants getting naturalized at Monticello whom I spoke to, getting citizenship isn’t about Trump — it’s about a personal journey.
None of the immigrants I spoke to have experienced personal discrimination, or prejudice, in the US.
“It bothers you when you’re little,” says Juan Becerra, but “at the end of the day, I live a normal life and pay my taxes, pay for my home, and they're not paying my bills, so I ain't worried about them.” (Becerra dismisses Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans; the president is just talking about unauthorized immigrants and criminals, he says, and “I've never been in trouble with everything. I try to live a good life, uh, the right way.”)
As for politics, Khan just doesn’t bring it up with anyone. “Where I work, everybody respects me. I respect my bosses. They are so nice, so good, and I don't want to talk any politics to them.”
But it’s not always so easy to ignore.
Victor Zarate admits that the “political climate” of 2017 isn’t exactly what he imagined he’d be welcomed into when he formally became an American. “The political climate obviously hasn’t been all that friendly toward immigrants and Mexicans. The things you hear on the news aren’t, like, too awesome or fun to hear.”
It’s been alienating for his parents, he says — “with some of the rhetoric going around, I definitely don’t think they feel they are American or want to be” — but ultimately, he rejects it as “just a short phase.”
“That’s not really what Americans are about. It’s not really going to change what America is at all, I don’t think,” he says. “I’m still proud, I’m still excited to become an American.”
In fact, Zarate says, he’s going to use his citizenship to speak up on behalf of his parents and others like them. “Because I’m American I can, first of all actually be a part of the political process, I can vote, just have my voice heard more. I’m definitely going to speak up and help support immigration or immigrants that are here. That’s my story, and I had people that helped me growing up, so I want to try and help others who don’t feel like they have a voice.”
While other new citizens weren’t so explicit about what they plan to advocate for, all of them shared that sentiment: that being American meant not just that they could vote, but that they could speak up in their community and have it matter.
“Looking into leadership for the country and leadership for my daughter's future, that really pushed me” to naturalize, says Athina Patac. “I want to be able to have a voice in any type of benefit for my future as well as any of my children's future — I only have a daughter right now, but any of my future kids as well. But if I don't have my citizenship, I wouldn't be able to vote, [so] even if I stood against any type of initiative strongly, there's nothing I could do.”
“I want to be a part of voting, and I want to be part of, you know, the state,” says Juan Becerra. “It would feel good to be able to have a say in voting. People say that one vote doesn't matter, but you never know, you know?”