Months ago, I was shopping at the Fortuna Safeway with Marilyn, my wife of 30 years. At the checkout counter, we were idly looking at a copy of the National Enquirer. The screaming headline over a picture of a woman holding a sideshow-type baby was “I HAD A BABY WITH AN ALIEN.”
“Big deal” says Marilyn “So did I.”
That did it! I called the Immigration (INS) number that same day to request citizenship forms.
Have you tried to call any government agency lately? They all have an ARS (automatic response service), which means “If you want this message in Laotian or Spanish, press 2.” “If you want foreign adoption information and are gay, press 69.” If you are ready to give up, you are out of luck, because the disembodied voice drones on and on with endless numbered choices. I was ready to wait another 36 years. (Oh dear, have I been an alien that long? Tempus fugit!) I had a brilliant inspiration. I handed the receiver to Marilyn. After all these years she has a proven immense reservoir of patience.
After pressing all the right buttons, a recorded voice told her to say the name and address of the applicant. Lo and behold, within ten days I receive my forms. Off to Kinko’s for photos (my best smile), a check for $95 bucks (the INS is self-supporting?). After three months of waiting, I got a postcard invitation for “THE INTERVIEW” in San Francisco.
The Interview is the single most important event. A real American INS agent checks me out closely to see if I fit in with the other 230 million. He turned out to be Luis, a nice, elderly, former Philippino. At first we had a hard time communicating, what with his heavy Tagalog and my gutural German accent. He wanted to know if I knew who Diane Feinstein was. I explained that she used to be my neighbor in San Francisco, before she got into politics, got really rich and moved. He wanted to know if I was a communist. I assured him that I was a card-carrying member of the petit bourgeoisie. That was it. So simple. Within ten minutes my file wandered into the tray labeled “Approved” and I got a slip of paper telling me to show up in two weeks at SF Masonic Hall for the SWEARING IN. (I just knew the Masons had their mitts in this.)
I show up on the appointed day dressed in a suit, tie, shined shoes. I am all alone with my thoughts. I am practically ready to cry, thinking about the watershed changes in my life as I walk up Taylor Street on a beautiful summer morning. Masonic Hall is gigantic. It packs 2036 soon-to-be citizens and the same amount of relatives and friends. The ceremony is delayed because the lines to hand out everybody’s certificate are a block long.
I find Luis who is ushering people around and start interviewing him. He points out that INS has another swearing in at 3pm for another 1800 new citizens. This event is repeated in San Francisco alone for two sessions, twice a week, year around! There is a huge backlog of millions of applications, he says. INS is working under direct orders from Vice President Gore to streamline the process. Every application is to be processed in six months flat (it used to take a year or two). They expect to approve 1.3 million new citizens this year alone. (Hopefully before this November election.) Another INS agent, Eric, tells me, “There is on end in sight for the backlog. We are just beginning to get applications from the millions who received legal residency under Bush’s amnesty program. (So it was the Republicans who started this?) After five years (which starts about now), they can all apply for citizenship. The first thing they do after getting their citizenship is to legally bring in their close relatives. Five years from now, there is going to be an ever bigger pool of applicants.” He is obviously concerned about the political and economic consequences of this geometric progression.
I tell Luis and Eric that my decision to become a citizen is political, too. Like most of the people here, I am concerned with the growing anti-immigrant tendency in California. Proposition 187 was not only racist, but self-defeating and downright stupid. Since then it was also found unconstitutioanl. Yet politicians keep drafting laws and propositions that they knew are doomed because the basic law of the land forbids blatant and racist discrimination. The shameful thing is that the only purpose they serve is to secure votes for demagogues from ill-informed or ignorant voters. For example, the latest Proposition would deny legal immigrants like myself welfare and other benefits (my eight or nine employees should be worried if I go broke!). By extension, such a proposition would deny benefits to my children. (That would be Marilyn’s 19-year-old alien baby, a true son of the Golden West, whose ancestors on her side fought in the American Revolution, but whose father is an alien.) Does this make sense? Heck no! It’s payback time for Governor Wilson. (It’s his own fault for stiring up this hornet’s nest.)
The 30-minute ceremony is about to begin. Introduction by Mariela. Speech by Jason Ilmong, Mrs. Promesitas gives us a hearty rendition of that great American song, “Amelica, Ome of the Blave.” I look around. Aside from the judge, standing down there in black robe, white hair and judicial glasses, I’m the only squarehead honky in a sea of interesting ethnicity. I renounce my allegiance to any “princes or foreign potentates.” It is over. I am an American.
I ask myself how I feel in this new capacity. I am happy. But I still have an accent. I’ll work on that. But first, I am going to vote for the guy who sent me my first congratulatory letter, Al Gore’s boss.