Showing my papers: A Caribbean immigrant’s journey to becoming an American
Looking through my old immigration records before July Fourth, I wince at how our government treats aspiring citizens
I became an American long before the government of the United States recognized my legal claim to call myself one.
My journey from international student to immigrant to American was a transformation of the heart — emotional, cultural and social. Americanness, I learned, is an acquired sensibility.
The evolution comes imperceptibly. Perhaps while watching a sports event like the Olympics or the World Cup. Do I root for England, the country of my birth, or for my adopted home, where my son was born? My choice was clear. I had to root for the country my son could play for. His future was my future.
But citizenship, like marriage, is a legality, both political and economic. The stark difference between the way I saw myself and the way U.S. immigration officials saw me is laid bare in 135 pages of my immigration file, documents I received from the National Records Center through a Freedom of Information Act request.
It has been almost 40 years since I began my American journey. It has been more than two decades since I exchanged my alien registration card for American citizenship. Fourteen years have elapsed since I voted for the first Black U.S. president.
But four years of living with an occupant in the White House who turned the word “immigrant” into an epithet forced me to reappraise my place in America. It’s home, but it feels far less welcoming than it used to, like a friendship that has soured. The success of every Black immigrant to America attests to the pernicious presence, rather than the absence, of American racism. My Caribbean friends and I agree that this is not the America that enticed us. The young men we once were would not have chosen this version of America.
I landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York two days after Christmas in 1984. The snowbanks on the tarmac were a world away from the sun, sea and sand of Montserrat, where I grew up. I surrendered my khaki shorts and T-shirts for sweaters and overcoats in my freshman year at Howard University.
Learning to cope with winter was a compulsory, first course in my immigrant education. Dress in layers. Go for the practical over the preppy. As I stood at the bus stop shivering, my thin ankle boots were no match for the freezing temperatures. I would close my eyes and try to transport myself under a tamarind tree, basking in the warmth of home.
My worldview had been shaped by the BBC, not CBS. I chafed at America’s military arrogance. Writing for Howard’s student newspaper’s opinion page, I railed at the policy of “constructive engagement” with apartheid in South Africa and deplored the U.S. bombing of Libya. When my cousin with whom I lived objected to my outspokenness, I invoked the First Amendment. This is freedom of speech, this is America, I replied. I claimed Americans’ most sacred right as my own.
After graduation, I came to understand the spirit of America as a cub reporter in the suburbs north of New York City. It was here, among the second- and third-generation Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants who policed the streets, collected the garbage, fought the fires and filled the potholes of their affluent Westchester County towns, that my transition from foreigner to American began in earnest.
From these men and women, I learned that we all begin as foreigners, outsiders and interlopers to this experiment we call America. Still, mine wasn’t an easy transition. I disliked town council meetings that began with the Pledge of Allegiance. While everyone else in the auditorium stood and dutifully placed their right hand on their left breast, turned toward the flag and repeated a ritual learned in grade school, I fidgeted. I didn’t utter the pledge. The words belonged to someone else. To say them connoted ownership.
Those were awkward moments; it was an awkward time. I left home a man. When I arrived in America, I discovered I was a Black man. Back then, I often was the lone Black person in a room imbued with whiteness. Whiteness filled the benches, decorated the walls in aging picture frames and stared back at me from the dais. It reminded me that whiteness symbolized power in America. Later, I came to understand that whiteness was learned, an acquired privilege grasped by a succession of European immigrants. The ancestors of the Italian police officers were not always considered white. But unlike them, as a Caribbean immigrant, I could not change my color even if I could change my name or my accent.
But being a reporter, I wasn’t just any immigrant. I was an immigrant with a press pass that gave me access to the corridors of power. Mayors and police chiefs opened their doors when I knocked. They answered when I phoned.
Still, each election night, whether the ballots were being counted for the village council or the White House, I felt powerless. Although I could write about who won and who lost, I had no say in the outcome. I was not a citizen. I couldn’t vote.
To make matters worse, whenever I tried to argue politics with my wife, she’d raise her hand to shush me: “You can’t vote. You’re not a citizen.”
Shamed into silence, I vowed to respond with action. Caribbean immigrants are notorious for using notions of returning home as an excuse for not becoming U.S. citizens. But the ambivalence that haunted me for more than a decade gave way to a patriotic, if not flag-waving, love. I made my choice. I chose America. I was ready to claim my citizenship.
In early 1996, I drove to the Piscataway (New Jersey) Police Department to get fingerprinted. In my crooked penmanship in blue ink, I filled out the details of my American journey. I listed when I had arrived in the U.S., each time I traveled abroad, which organizations I joined — I didn’t belong to any communist organizations — and places I had lived. I mailed my N400 application, a $95 check and waited. And waited.
The national mood had shifted. Immigration reform followed welfare reform. Americans were less welcoming to foreigners. Permanent residency, a haven for millions of legal immigrants who couldn’t bring themselves to renounce the citizenship of their homeland, suddenly seemed less secure.
In fear, thousands of legal immigrants rushed to apply for citizenship. Mine was one of 1.2 million applications submitted that year to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the predecessor of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Inundated with paperwork and struggling to process congressionally mandated FBI criminal background checks, the INS took months or even years to process naturalization applications. The overworked and understaffed agency returned applications for the most minor omissions. Any relocation or resubmission lengthened the processing time.
The INS sent back my initial petition so that I could include the color of my eyes on the fingerprint form. In the ensuing three years I lived in three states, changed jobs three times, celebrated my second son’s birth and mourned his death — and never heard back from the INS.
Finally, in January 1999, I called the office of U.S. Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, who represented my 5th Congressional District. (By then, I had moved to Fort Mill, South Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina.)
Just as I feared, the news from the INS was disheartening. The agency’s Atlanta regional office had received my application, but my N400 naturalization application form was missing. Without the completed application, my file had been transferred back and forth from one regional office to another, New York City to Charlotte to Charleston, South Carolina, to Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the price of citizenship had risen sharply. The agency requested a copy of my application and the canceled check dated three years earlier. Thankfully, I found a copy of the $95 check. I didn’t have to pay the new fee of $225.
Here’s an INS notation in response to Spratt’s query on my behalf:
“There is a duplicate N400 with proof of payment in the file. He contacted Atlanta in 1998 saying he had filed N400 with Charlotte in 1997. Wanda. … got file but no N400. So it went to records. Congressional office contacted me. I asked for copy of original and proof of payment with duplicate application. It appears he filed in New York in 1996. Maybe he refiled in Charlotte in 1997. Who knows! Your calls as to whether to reopen or make him refile.”
The heartlessness of the communication seemed so at odds with my intentions.
It took more than 18 months from Spratt’s initial intervention to when I obtained my citizenship. My FOIA request revealed the depth of the INS’ ineptitude. Where I suspected malice, I found apathy bordering on incompetence. For instance, I rediscovered a March 21, 1988, deportation notice after my application for permanent residence was erroneously denied.
“It is ordered your application for status as a permanent resident be denied. You are granted to April 21, 1988 to affect your departure from the United States voluntarily, without the institutions of proceeding to enforce your departure. If you fail to depart from the United States by the date specified, proceedings will be instituted to enforce your departure.”
I had long forgotten that moment of panic during my senior year of college. By then I had married my high school sweetheart. We had applied to change my status from international student to permanent resident. All I had dreamed of seemed imperiled. Clearly, the words written on the Statue of Liberty had long lost their resonance for those paper pushers.
The records also show my answers to the citizenship test administered by a third-generation descendant of a Chinese immigrant sitting in a tiny office in Greer, South Carolina. The 22 questions presented no challenge for an immigrant with a college education: What are the three colors of the flag? Who becomes president if the vice president dies?
The records don’t show that before I could take the test I had to drive to Kinko’s to obtain new passport pictures. The agency lost the set I’d submitted.
On the last page of my file is a black-and-white copy of a photo of my wife and me. (As an international student, marriage to my wife, an American citizen, made me eligible for a permanent residency and a “green card.”) We are standing on the threshold of our apartment building in the Bronx, New York. The five-story building is a migrant haven. Owned by her aunt, it housed my wife’s siblings and a succession of new immigrants from Montserrat. It’s our second stop toward a house and a picket fence. On that May day in 1987, our young countenances are alight with laughter and anticipation. It’s our wedding day and we are about to drive to the Bronx County Courthouse to get married.
I am wearing my first suit, bought off the rack at Syms, the discount clothier. My fiancée’s dress is almost ankle-length. My arm is raised like a politician announcing my candidacy for office. I seemed self-assured and wore my privilege without apology. After all, I was a student at an elite historically Black university. I had never done menial work. From where I stood, anything was possible. This was America.
The INS records also mark when my life as a citizen began: A copy of my naturalization certificate. I had braved Atlanta’s notorious rush-hour traffic to attend the 8 a.m. swearing-in ceremony at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building. In the excitement and relief of finally becoming a citizen (coupled with the shallowness of my knowledge of the South’s dark racial history), I missed the irony of the location at the time. The venue was named for the late U.S. senator from Georgia, a former chairman of the Senate Immigration Committee and a diehard segregationist. Russell co-authored the Southern Manifesto, a diatribe concocted to thwart school integration after Brown v. Board of Education.
But we had come that day to pledge our allegiance, not to a man or to a cause but to an idea: the American idea. We claimed it despite all of its complexities and contradictions. And despite today’s anti-immigrant spirit and vitriol, I still do.