The reason I went down to LA last week was to continue my application to become a naturalized American citizen.
It's a big decision, one that I'm doing for some of the right reasons and some of the wrong reasons.
It took me four years of lost paperwork, unsigned documents, expired fingerprints, transposed alien numbers, queues, tears and rage at the INS to get my Green Card. I was not anxious to repeat the experience, but permanent residency is only good for 10 years and mine expires in 2012. That seems a long way off - unless it took you 4 years to go through the process first time round.
I knew my decisions were; to renew my Green Card or become a citizen.
I asked my Swedish friend Brunhilde (made up name) which option she would suggest. I knew she'd recently become a US citizen after 30 years of permanent residence.
She wrote: .....'on the plus side, if you become a citizen you will finally be able to get that much sought-after job at the DMV, but it you've ever been a prostitute those dreams will be crushed'.
Something to think about.
In the end I decided on citizenship for the following reasons:
- I literally could not face the green card rigmarole again.
- I have lived here for 15 years and have been embraced by this country in a lot of ways. It was time to put up or shut up (plus I now use phrases like 'put up or shut up' - my brain has already been naturalized).
- I want to vote. Case in point a letter from Santa Barbara's Elementary School District last week to inform us that 'the SB Elementary School District has failed to reach basic standards in English Language Arts and Math'. Enough said.
- I discovered I did not have to give up my British citizenship (this one was huge).
- Despite suggestions to the contrary, I have never had sex for money.
- I can't say 'British citizenship' without saying 'British Shitizenship'.
- Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness. Ha ha ha.
- Finally, flexibility. I can live in the UK with dual citizenship, I cannot do that as a permanent resident.
I wrote a big fat check to the INS, collected my documents, filled out my N-400 (explaining that I have not been a drunk or a prostitute - I'm not kidding), and waited.
Within two weeks I had an appointment letter for my 'biometric evaluation'. Clearly they either do not have as many people to process as 10 years ago, or, more likely, they are far more keen for you to be a citizen than a permanent resident.
The next step was my interview, English language test and civics exam.
When I finally got in the building I joined a crowded room full of nervous looking people facing a wall. The only thing on the wall was a head-shaped hole covered by a metal grille. This was the INS I have come to know. I opened my book and prepared to wait. I was definitely surprised when my name was called only 15 minutes later. I approached the metal grille only to be told I was in the wrong room.
Ha! English language comprehension test failed. I had misread my appointment letter.
I raced across the building to another eerily similar room full of anxious looking people studying their booklet 'A Guide To Naturalization'. I placed my appointment letter on a pile of others in a box and settled in. It is a common misconception that you automatically become a citizen after marrying an American. It actually only entitles you to apply; first for permanent residency (a Green Card) and then, a minimum of 3-5 years later, for citizenship. There are countless forms, interviews, document-checking etc to be done. Make no mistake, anyone who has become a US citizen in recent years has worked hard and paid a lot of money to so.
Once every five minutes of so a harried-looking INS representative would enter the room - people would stop what they were doing and a hush would fall. The immigration official would then trip his or her way through someone's name and they would both disappear. We all had plenty of time to see all the officials come and go, and peg our hopes on getting one of the least surly.
Finally, my name was called, my number was up, and I disappeared in to the bowels of the INS.