Becoming American

flag-973746_640A conservative friend in Texas asked me a question that caught me off guard and set me thinking.

She hesitated before she asked me. “You weren’t born in the States so…how do you feel about the pledge of allegiance?”

The question was respectfully asked and deserved a thoughtful answer. I knew it mattered to her so I rattled off an answer that I hoped sounded positive and not too incoherent.

To be honest, I had never given it much thought. I didn’t grow up saying a pledge of allegiance in Canada. I always stand respectfully for the pledge though I don’t always put my hand over my heart, just feels kind of weird. I’m comfortable with the words except for “under God” which—to me—seems at odds with freedom of religion.

However, I believe America is much greater than the words. After all, the pledge was not written till 1892. The admonition to put one’s hand over one’s heart didn’t come until 1942, and the words “under God” weren’t added until 1954. People were deeply patriotic long before then.

I’m even comfortable if some people choose to exercise their right to freedom of speech by kneeling during the national anthem. Freedom of speech and freedom to protest peacefully matter.

But I think her question may have hinted at something deeper than the pledge. Can a person who was not born in the United States ever be as patriotic as a native-born American?

I can’t speak for everyone who came to this country from another, but I can tell my own story.

immigrantsI am from Canada. When we crossed into the States to live here for the rest of our lives, I thought about the stories of others who had come from other countries. I felt as if I ought to have climbed mountains or crossed rivers; escaped violence, famine, or persecution; ought to be in shabby clothes, maybe wearing a kerchief over my head tied under my chin, maybe with my belongings wrapped in a pack on my back.

volkswagen.jpgWhen we crossed the border in our 1965 blue Volkswagen beetle, with our baby tucked in the space behind the back seat, we’d traveled less than 100 miles. Easy.

Of course, getting that permanent resident card, the “green card,” had not been easy. It never is, but before 1965 it was harder for my husband (now my ex) than me. He was an Indian born in Pakistan. The laws at that time set quotas on immigration based on the country you were born in. There was no specific quota for Canadians: I should be fine.  But two thirds of the total quota was assigned to applicants from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany. The quotas for everywhere else were pitifully small. The quota for India was 100, the same for Pakistan.

I would have happily stayed in Canada, but he wanted to come to the States where he believed career opportunities would be greater. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act. The previous quotas by national origin no longer applied. Now our immigration became a feasible dream. 

My ex-husband had no close relatives in the States, one way to get a visa under the new rules, but he had a PhD, and he was hoping to get a job offer from a company willing to work to demonstrate that no American was qualified to do the job they wanted to give to him.              

We hired an immigration lawyer and worked our way through the piles of paperwork and fact checking required of applicants. We needed to swear that we were not drunkards, prostitutes, mentally ill, etc. and we needed police clearance.

Some months later, after a trip to the American consulate in Toronto, hours of sitting, an intensive interview, and more paperwork, we were cleared to come to the United States. And after getting our affairs in order, we made that hundred mile trip in our little blue car.

Five years after we arrived, as soon as he became eligible for citizenship, my ex-husband applied for citizenship. He had no reservations at all. He very much wanted to be an American and had never wavered.

But me? Even though he continually urged me to apply for citizenship, it took me ten years. Every January I signed another alien registration form. Alien. Ugly word. Elections came and went, and I couldn’t vote.

I loved, will always love Canada, my motherland. Becoming an American (at least at that time)  meant swearing under oath before a judge not only that I would be loyal to the United States, but that I no longer had any allegiance to Canada.

Changes to the head and heart take time. Finally I tipped towards citizenship.  After all, two of my children were born in the States. I was almost certainly going to spend the rest of my life here. The United States and the American people were good to me. And I didn’t want to spend my life as an alien. I wanted to belong here.

Friends from New York City who had gone through the process there warned me that the test for citizenship was brutal.

“Study everything you can. Memorize the materials they give you.”

They warned of questions like

How old do you have to be to become a senator?

How many judges are  in the Supreme Court?

“You gotta learn it all.”

I had a hunch they worried about my chances. They had felt lucky to have survived the ordeal.

I studied. I overstudied. I walked in, ready for whatever I might face.

The test in Kingston, NY, was nothing like that in New York City.

Here’s my entire test. (It’s been awhile, but I think my memory is correct.)

  1. Who was the first president?
  2. Who is president now?
  3. How many states were there originally?
  4. How many states are there now?

I humbly believe I could have passed the test long before I came to the States. (So could most Canadians.)

And there was also a test of English proficiency. I was asked to write the sentence “I live in a big house.” 

I aced it. (It didn’t hurt that English is my first language.)

dunlap_broadside_copy_of_the_united_states_declaration_of_independence_locI was on my way to becoming an American citizen. Complimentary documents arrived in the mail from the Daughters of the American Revolution. Copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Good stuff.

I, a woman descended from Loyalists who settled in the Canadian Maritimes, was being welcomed to citizenship by women whose ancestors had fought on the other, winning side. How wonderfully ironic!

The ceremony in Kingston was as fancy as a small town can make it. The boy scouts marched in and the Women’s Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The women also wore uniforms, blue and crisply pressed.  Women in the front of the little parade carried big flags on poles inserted into holders on straps that crossed their ample bosoms.

Part of me smiled at the earnest boy scouts and ladies auxiliary. I wanted to stay in my head rather than entering the patriotic moment. But another part of me marveled at  their sincerity and good will.

As each applicant approached the judge to take the oath of allegiance, the judge gave him or her a little compliment. To the woman before me, he said, “What a pretty lady.” 

As I came close, he said to me “so nice to see quality becoming citizens.”

Quality? What did he know of me? Nothing, really, except that I looked Anglo-Saxon. That particular compliment left a sour taste, reminding me of the American people’s history of  ambivalence towards immigrants.

passportBut I had become a citizen.

I’ve lived decades now as an American. Beautiful upstate New York has become my home.

My patriotism remains deep but complex and nuanced. After years of serious thought, I had taken a solemn and sincere oath of allegiance to this country. More than the passing rhetoric of one party or another, I admire and believe in the principles that this country was founded upon.

I believe in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

(Well, ok, I’m a little ambivalent about the second amendment. Well-regulated?!) 

What could be more beautiful than the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”?

I believe that worthwhile patriotism is not about declaring ourselves exceptional, nor denying or glossing over our shortcomings. It’s about remaining true to the extraordinary principles that should forever define and inspire us. It’s about working diligently to see them realized.

The pledge is good. But more important than reciting the words of the pledge or putting my hand over my heart are its closing words “with liberty and justice for all.” I believe in those words with all my heart.


© November 2016 by Margaret French

Getting to America: me, Indians, everybody else, and immigration law

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free....

One gray-haired, elderly woman and I were the only people who’d come to the Indian Consulate in New York City to take the six hour, two part examination in beginning Hindi. We were both married to men from India and wanted to learn our husbands’ language.

At lunch, between part one and part two of the exam, she shared her story with me. She was a physician who had spent most of her adult life in India.  In the 1930s she had married in the United States, and when she did, her American citizenship was taken away from her.

I could not believe it! She had no earthly reason not to tell me the truth–but it was inconceivable to me that the United States, land of immigrants, would take away a native-born American’s citizenship just because she had married an Asian. I smiled and nodded, but vowed to myself to go home and do some research.

She was telling the truth. In 1907, with the Expatriation Act, any American woman who married a foreign national lost her citizenship. In 1922 that part of the law was repealed–but not for American women who married Asians.

After she married, she went to India and lived most of her life there, practicing medicine. That was easier, I suppose, than to live as a woman without a country, here, in the United States, where she was born and raised.

It occurred to me that her husband should have applied for American citizenship before their marriage. Then she could have kept hers.  I was naive: he could not. In 1923 the Supreme Court had ruled that Indians from the Asian subcontinent could not become U.S. citizens. Although anthropologists deemed them Caucasians, the Court decided they were still not white. Only whites and Africans, by law, could be citizens.

Over the years, Congress has often sought to adjust the ingredients in the American melting pot. The Immigration Law of 1924 established quotas on how many people from each country could come to the United States based upon the numbers already living in the US in 1890–before the huge–and unwelcome influx from Southern and Eastern Europe. Preference would henceforth be given to British, Irish, German, and other Northern Europeans. Asians were not welcome at all.

My own immigration story began in the 1960s. It would have been relatively easy for me to emigrate from Canada to the U.S. There were no quotas on people from the Western Hemisphere.

But I had married an Indian who wanted to come to the States. By this time, a new law was in effect, the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952.  It retained quotas, but got rid of the racial restrictions. Immigration was possible for him…just extremely difficult.

The quota for India was 100 per year. It was also 100 for Pakistan, the country where he was actually born. (In 1947, when India and Pakistan had gained their independence, his family fled to India.) It was also 100 for many other countries as well–the lowest possible number allowed by law.

Other quotas were more far more generous. Of the 154,000 annual immigration visas allowed, Great Britain received 65,700; Ireland, 17,800; Germany, 25,900.

No wonder there were so few Indians living in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s!

In 1965, the year I married, Lyndon Johnson signed a new immigration law that abolished quotas by nationality. Immigration laws now favored those with family in the States (my former husband had none) or skills needed by the U.S. (he had a PhD in chemistry). In 1966, he and I and our baby boy drove across the border in our little blue VW bug to begin our new life in the United States.

We were not the only ones who came after 1965. Nowadays several million Indians live and work in the States. Several have won Nobel prizes. They’ve started successful companies, teach in our universities, practice medicine, write novels, go into politics, become engineers and IT specialists. They are part of the mosaic that is the United States. As a group, they’ve been wildly successful and they contribute a great deal.

Their story is like the story of many others who have been drawn here by the promise of a better life.  Still, I worry.

In the 1960s, when I came of age and when immigration laws were changed, the mood in our country, especially among the young, was more liberal than I’ve seen it before or since. Many of us who were young believed all the lyrics in our folk songs:

“Come on people now, smile on your brother. Everybody get together, try to love one another right now.”

But the sixties are long gone. Laws can change for the better, but they can also change for the worse. We’ve been anti-immigrant before, many times.

We know the story of the Japanese-Americans: well over 100,000 were sent to internment camps during World War II. They were not the Japanese who had bombed Pearl Harbor.  It didn’t matter. Thousands of Germans and Italians were placed in internment camps too. We treated these people badly because we were afraid. We’re afraid now.

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, we deported or coerced hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who were mostly legal residents or American citizens to leave the United States.  We did it because jobs were scarce. Jobs are scarce now.

These days, anti-everybody-else rhetoric has reached a fever pitch. Nonsense is fervently repeated until it sounds true. We need  immigration laws, to be sure, but surely they should be based on rational and fair principles.

In Yeat’s poem, “The Second Coming,” written in the aftermath of World War I, he writes

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Maybe, if we believe in liberty and justice for all, it’s time to stand up to all that passionate intensity.


Copyright by Margaret French, October 9, 2011