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A legal journalist on the “surreal” experience of becoming a US citizen under Trump

Sarah Jeong has spent the past several months covering Trump’s travel ban … while officially becoming an American citizen.

A protest against the travel ban in San Francisco in January.
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty

“America is not doing so hot right now,” declares law and technology journalist Sarah Jeong. But after the election of Donald Trump, she decided to become a US citizen anyway.

Jeong, who was born in South Korea, has spent the Trump administration doing two things. She’s been completing the naturalization process (she was formally sworn in as a citizen on June 28), in part to move past the fears she’s always felt as an immigrant going through “the system” — particularly when traveling outside the US. And she’s been covering the ongoing litigation over the Trump administration’s travel ban — which is, in part, a legal fight over how immigrants were treated when they returned to the US after traveling abroad.

“I was hypnotized by the travel ban, the way, you know, a chicken gets hypnotized by something it's afraid of,” Jeong says. But at the same time, she was going through the motions of one of America’s highest civil sacraments: memorizing questions and answers about constitutional rights and the rule of law for the civics test, swearing an oath of allegiance during her naturalization ceremony. I talked to her the day after she was naturalized about going through those experiences simultaneously.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dara Lind

So can we start at the very beginning? How did you actually come to the US? How old were you, and why did you come?

Sarah Jeong

I was 3, and I came with my parents, who were on student visas. They still live in New York, but we're doing the citizenship process separately. So they're not in the process right now. They're just staying residents.

I was basically on an F2 visa for most of my life — that's, like, for a child or a dependent of a student.

The way immigrants were treated before and after September 11 — there is a clear demarcation in mind. It got a lot scarier to be an immigrant in the US. And I was just a kid, but I sensed it. And navigating that system became a little more fraught, a little scarier. It was kind of a stressful period.

For a long time [after 9/11], it made me nervous to fly outside the country, even on a green card. There would always be a few weird issues at the airport, because, I don't know, there's something about the system that flags you when you are an alien leaving the US for another country that is not your country of origin. Something flags you in the system, and there's always a thing where they won't check you in, and then you have to go to the airport, and then you have to stand in line. Every time.

I'm a very privileged person. And I am, like, completely documented. Everything's in order, and I'm educated. I speak English. I don't have that much to be afraid of. But whenever I run into one of these — and I'm not going to again, and that's amazing — whenever I ran into those issues, my heart would start pounding. I just felt really stressed out about it every time.

Dara Lind

At some point in there, you did get a green card [for permanent residency]?

Sarah Jeong

The system was kind of a nightmare, and it takes a lot to get a green card. I was actually in college. The day I found out that I got a green card, I think, was the same day Obama was sworn into office. So it was kind of a really meaningful day to me.

Once I had my green card, it was just a huge relief. There are just things you can do on a green card that you can't do on visas, and as I got older, I was starting to sort of brush up against that. It was a huge relief. I felt much more comfortable. I mean, obviously, like, I could get a job now, and all that stuff.

It was great, but there are some things that you brush up against here and there. Like obviously, you can't vote. That's the big one. You don't get jury duty. Like, my friends would gripe about, "Ugh, I got called for jury duty" — I would fucking love to be called for jury duty.

There's this clear line of demarcation between you and citizens. Like, you go out, you travel outside the country, and you come back and you have to stand in a different line. Your traveling companions all have the nice passport, and you have not a quote-unquote “good” passport, so you have to go stand in another line.

Here's a weird one: There's a House Appropriations bill that makes it so you can't take federal money as a federal employee, in most circumstances, unless you're a US citizen. So what that practically means, actually, is that I couldn't intern with the federal government when I was in law school. That's not even something I could interview for, or attempt to apply for, because it wouldn't happen. I wouldn't be able to clerk for a federal judge. That was all stuff that I could not even consider doing.

Dara Lind

What was it like to develop an interest in, and then start studying, law, having this hyperawareness of this system, and seeing things from that perspective?

Sarah Jeong

Well, I mean, part of me — I think maybe something inside me wanted to become a lawyer because the thought of having sort of power over the system was appealing.

But that said, I went into law school and I steered clear of immigration law, which is, as you know, a specialty, because it's really complicated. It's such a clusterfuck that it has to be its own niche specialty law. And I steered clear of it, and I'm not entirely sure why.

I think I just didn't really want to think about it that much. Because it kind of has to absorb you. You don't really get interested in immigration law on the side. I think I just thought that's not what I want to absorb my entire life into, and I steered clear of it.

I kind of wish now, looking back on the law school experience, I do wish I had taken a class or two, especially with the ongoing legal issues now.

But yeah, I mean, I'm sure there was some part of me that was like, "This system, I wish I had power over it; if I did this, maybe I would have more power over it."

Dara Lind

When did you decide to become a citizen?

Sarah Jeong

It was something I had just been putting off. You know? Sometimes you just kind of get used to the state of affairs.

I had played with the idea of becoming naturalized before the election so that I could vote, but hilariously, following that timeline, I thought, "There's no point. It will be Clinton versus Jeb Bush, and I don’t want to vote in that election." That's literally what I thought.

Yeah, I was in for a big surprise. And by the time it was, like, the huge big surprise, there was no point in trying to get naturalized in time to vote.

I moved to Oregon in October, and I had just been through a big breakup, so I had been bouncing around addresses for a little bit, and ... you have to live in a jurisdiction for three months prior to filing your N-400 [the official application for citizenship that starts the naturalization process]. So [naturalizing] was sort of an intention I had, but it was an intention I have had for a while. I had just been putting it off and off and off.

Dara Lind

And then the election happened. And you decided to naturalize because of that?

Sarah Jeong

Yeah, you know, America is not doing so hot right now.

A lot of people of my educational background or political leanings are looking at this and feeling very discouraged, and then there's sort of the classic, cheesy, "I'm going to move to Canada! I'm going to move Sweden!" Which, by the way, good luck. Good luck navigating their immigration systems, you guys. You have no idea what you're in for. It's ludicrous. Only someone who has no idea what an immigration system is like would say something of the sort.

Before the election, I would say, "I'm just going to move back to Korea if Trump gets elected. I can't deal with this." And then he did get elected.

And when you're sort of forced into that situation, I realized that I am so culturally American. I have built my entire life around an American identity — even though I spent my entire life feeling like I wasn't a real American.

I'm not going to say it's something that I chose, because did I really choose to become culturally American? I don't really know if that's true. But there's kind of no point in fighting it, I think. I am an American, and given the opportunity to become a citizen with all the rights and responsibilities, like, yeah, I should do that.

I do wish I could maintain dual citizenship, which Korea will not let me do. It would be nice to become repatriated one day into Korea if their law ever changes, but no, this is my home, for better or worse. Right now may be worse, but this is where I belong.

So November rolls around, Trump is elected, I go home in shock, and I'm sitting in my apartment in the dark, and I just go, "I'm filing my fucking N-400 the day January 1 rolls around." And I sit there, I resolve to do this.

Over the winter, I put together my N-400. I had just gotten my application in and the travel ban came down.

Dara Lind

You were writing mostly about law and technology before. So how did you get interested in the travel ban cases?

Sarah Jeong

I was at an event (at the University of California-Davis) and there were a bunch of lawyers and law professors there that I got to talk to — and they were all really upset by the travel ban too. It was really interesting to see because they were all sort of congregated together — and they were pissed. And I remember thinking, "I think I need to cancel a bunch of travel I was going to do this year. Because I just don't want to be caught abroad with a green card.”

The stories about people with green cards getting caught in airports was something that really hit me hard. Because, you know, it's something that I always felt wasn't a rational fear of mine — being in an airport and having your travel restricted. I always thought that was irrational of me, because I have a green card and I'm safe. And then the travel ban happened, and, of course, that just really provoked a lot of emotion in me.

All your worst fears that you keep telling yourself couldn't possibly ever happen, and then you do watch it happen to other people. Even though I knew that, you know, I have light skin. I don't have a Muslim-sounding name. I'm not Muslim. I don't wear a hijab. I don't come from one of the seven, later six, affected countries.

Even though I knew all those things, the travel ban really freaked me out, like, a lot. And so it was very strange to have that stuff going on parallel while I'm dealing with all of this bureaucracy.

I was kind of hypnotized by the travel ban, the way, you know, a chicken gets hypnotized by something it's afraid of. Like, it's a really scary, horrifying thing for me, on a very personal level, and there's also an interesting legal component to it as well. So it kind of triggered a deep emotional response and also an academic, professionally interested response.

I think that for a lot of people, a lot of journalists who sort of specialize in a niche beat, it's felt a little weird in the wake of Trump to do what you do. It’s like, “Does this matter anymore? Does tech matter anymore?” You get sort of these little jumps. You feel a little useless. And I was definitely struggling with that feeling. And then the travel ban came down and I was interested in it, so I decided to take my interest in it and do something with it.

Dara Lind

At the same time, though, you were going through the application process to become a citizen, so that it was going to be your government too. Did that juxtaposition feel weird at all?

Sarah Jeong

I got handed the "study guide" for the test back in February. It's felt really weird ever since that moment.

’Cause, like, I get fingerprinted, and then this guy hands me a study guide and it's got questions like, "What is the rule of law?" and, "What are two rights guaranteed to Americans by the Constitution?" Stuff like that — and stuff that's actually, like, legally incorrect.

It was really weird to be handed that pamphlet and to have to read through it, and to actually study it — because they'll only accept a very limited range of answers, so I wanted to make sure I could clear it all in one go.

It was especially bizarre because one of the first questions in the front of the pamphlet was, "What is the rule of law?" and meanwhile the airport litigation is going on, and CBP is refusing to let congressmen behind the security line to see what they were doing about the travel ban. I mean, talk about rule of law! Like, the federal agencies disobeying legal rulings, the president attacking the credibility of judges. It was very strange. It felt so surreal, so very surreal.

Dara Lind

Did it feel weird to then have to parrot those answers back, yesterday when you took it?

Sarah Jeong

Um, about as weird as the entire experience, to be quite honest. Like, the whole thing passed in a really surreal way.

I’m sitting in this guy's office. He's a perfectly nice man, but he basically has my life in his hands and he's being so cavalier about it. He's just like, "Oh, so you're not a terrorist or a communist or anything, right?" And I'm just like, "Nope" — being kind of jokey about it, but really I'm like, "I'm not here to joke around! Please check off on your form that I'm not a terrorist! Let's get this over with please."

Dara Lind

Did you worry you were actually going to raise any flags because of anything political or ideological?

Sarah Jeong

Nope. There's definitely moments in my life where I felt a little paranoid about it. You know, one of the questions is, “Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" or advocated for the downfall of the United States, so on and so forth. And it's like, “Uh, does an interest in universal basic income count?”

Sometimes you get those flashes of paranoia. They shouldn't come to you. But when they’re talking about your life — and it is my life because sure, I could go live outside the country, but I would always feel like an expat, whether or not I had citizenship — you feel a little like you've been taken hostage.

Dara Lind

So how did it feel to go from that experience to being sworn in — because you were sworn in right after that, right?

Sarah Jeong

I got a same-day swearing in, yeah. I didn't know I was getting sworn in that day, but apparently they do that sometimes.

Something that's kind of interesting about the situation I'm in, where I became an attorney before I became a citizen, is that I actually had to swear an oath of loyalty — it's different and, in some ways, a little more stringent than the oath of allegiance; I swore to defend the Constitution and laws of the United States — before I became a citizen. Because that's part of the oath you swear when you get sworn into the bar.

And the fact that it was easier for me to do that, that it was faster for me to do that than become a citizen, that's a trip I think.

People who are natural-born don't think about that. They don't think about the incredible effort it takes to get somewhere. The concentration and effort of will.

I was sworn in in a very small group of 29 people. Just 29 people.

And if you think about — this is something my boyfriend said afterward. He said that it was incredible to see all of those people there in that room, how much effort and willpower and tears it took to get there. Like, in that room, just 29 people, but probably a lifetime of effort combined to get to citizenship.

I think about that, and it's really sad that a lot of people don't realize this and they think it is so easy to come legally to this country. I [put] a lot of effort, a lot of time, energy, and money, into becoming a citizen legally. And I would never begrudge someone who came to this country undocumented. I would want amnesty for them immediately because this isn't fair. This process isn't fair.

Dara Lind

So how does it feel, now, to be a citizen?

Sarah Jeong

It feels really weird. Like, yesterday, I called myself an American in a joke. And it felt like a joke. And I am an American, like, that's — I registered to vote yesterday. I'm an American now, and it doesn't feel right.

It doesn't feel real still. I don't know at what point it will feel real. It's still like a funny thing that happened to me yesterday. Like something funny happened to me yesterday and then I went out and celebrated with my friends. I mean, I don't know what it's supposed to feel like to be a citizen, right? 'Cause I've never been. I don't know what that's supposed to feel like. And, um, I think eventually I'll settle into it. Right now, it still doesn't really feel real.

Right now I still feel like if someone asked to see my papers, I would feel a little jumpy. I think eventually I will settle into feeling that privilege.

Dara Lind

And now you get to go back to covering the travel ban! How is that feeling now? How do you feel about the work right now, after you’d kind of discovered a purpose in it in January?

Sarah Jeong

Writing about the travel ban feels less raw, and oddly less urgent. I feel a little better about doing stuff that doesn't have any political undercurrent to it. Before it felt really meaningless to write anything that didn't have a political undercurrent to it, and I don't feel like that anymore.

But I still sort of have the sense that if you have no political element to your work right now, what's the point?

I can find meaning in things that aren't political, but the political is such a big part of my life and my work now that I don't know if there will be a point at which we can shake that off. Like, it would be really nice to be able to go back and really, fully immerse myself back in copyright law or something, without thinking once about the collapse of separation of powers. But, yeah, now is not the time. I don't know when it will be, but now is definitely not the time.

CORRECTION: This article originally referred to UC-Berkeley where it should have referred to UC-Davis.