You make me feel like a naturalized … citizen

My decision to finally become an American, after living in this country for more than two decades as a resident alien, was based on two factors: Marriage and terrorism.

These two things are not connected, by the way, though some wags would consider marriage a form of terrorism. And it’s certainly been proven that fear of terrorism can lead to some unholy alliances.

For me, though, they were quite separate issues.
I married an American three years ago, and said gringo thought it might be a good idea for tax reasons. Apparently, non-citizens don’t have quite the same inheritance rights as y’all red-blooded Americans.

As for the terrorism part, after 9/11 the INS got swallowed up by the Department of  Homeland Security. Soon, rumors began to float around about Green Cards changing. Mine had no expiration date, as befits a permanent resident of 1989 vintage, but it looked like I was going to have to give that up, goofy picture and all.

Besides, while I realized Sweden will likely not join the Axis of Evil anytime soon, I feared what would happen when “Mamma Mia” finally wore out its welcome.

Living in a country and having no vote, even if it meant actually showing up for jury duty, was no longer an option. And so, almost exactly a year ago, I applied to become a citizen of this fine nation.

Let me tell you all about my journey.

Phase 1: Are you a habitual drunkard?
The first step to becoming a citizen is downloading the application, AKA the N-400 (which sounds a bit like a Star Wars ‘droid to me). Most of its 10 pages ask fairly routine questions about address and education and so on.

However, starting on page 7, things get interesting.

Part 10, “Affiliations,” begins innocuously enough with questions about memberships in various clubs. But then, the gloves come off.

9.   Have you ever been a member of or in any way associated (either directly or indirectly) with:

a.  The Communist Party?
b.  Any other totalitarian party?
c.  A terrorist organization?

10.  Have you ever advocated (either directly or indirectly) the overthrow of any government by force or violence?

11.  Have you ever persecuted (either directly or indirectly) any person because of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion?

Since question 11 clearly alludes to Nazis, it makes sense that question 12 asks about your activity in Germany in and before 1945.

The fun, however, really begins on Page 8, which addresses “Moral Character.”  Questions 15-21 ask about any crimes you have been prosecuted for, even if “your records were sealed or otherwise cleared or if anyone, including a judge, law enforcement officer, or attorney, told you that you no longer have a record.”

I guess your sins will always dog you.
(“Out, damn spot! Out, I say!”)

Question 22, however, was the clincher.
Have you ever:
a.  Been a habitual drunkard?
b.  Been a prostitute, or procured anyone for prostitution?
c.   Sold or smuggled controlled substances, illegal drugs, or narcotics?
d.   Been married to more than one person at the same time?”

Though I am happy to report I can honestly say no to all of these questions, I cannot imagine that any applicant would be foolish enough to say yes. But I guess being a “habitual drunkard” messes with your common sense.

To sum up, the most important lesson I learned when filling out the N-400 (beep, beep) was this: The United States Government has no sense of humor. This knowledge would serve me well in later phases.

Phase 2: As if strip malls weren’t surreal enough already
About a month after I sent in my application, I got a letter informing me that DOHS had received it. If everything went well, I should expect to become an American in “424 days.”

Well. So much for getting to vote in a historic election.
Still, patience is a virtue, so I figured I would hopefully be a citizen by 2012, and could agonize then over whether I prefer Clinton or Obama.

The same letter also included an order to go get fingerprinted. The FBI apparently needed to confirm I was not a habitually drunk prostitute.

My appointment was for noon at an “Application Center” in central Los Angeles. In my experience, most government business tends to take place in nondescript, if not downright bleak, ‘70s style buildings with acoustically tiled ceilings and dingy linoleum floors that squeak under rubber-soled shoes.

That is why I almost missed the Application Center, which was located in a strip mall. And not just any strip mall, but the kind where most of the shops were shuttered and the only sign of prosperity was a Curves gym.

I parked right across from Curves and made for the Application Center. The only way I could tell it was the Application Center was by the small sign over the door. The storefront windows were covered with brown butcher paper, making me wonder if the space had been recently moved into. What had it been before? A Payless? A Sally’s Beauty Supply? No matter. It was The Government’s now.

Just inside the door was a very small table, and seated behind it was a very large marshal. I showed him my letter.
“Do you have a cell phone?”
“You can’t bring cell phones in here. You’ll have to leave it in the car.”

That done, he gave me a number and directed towards one of many molded blue plastic chairs arranged in rows. The room was far from full.

I sat in the front row, and stole glances at the apparatus in the cavernous area to my left. Was that an airport-style metal detector? Or just a highly stylized cubicle?

To entertain those waiting, the Application Center had a small television. We watched “The People’s Court,” where the judge mediated a dog custody dispute. On the wall above the television sat a plastic frame, more like a sleeve, really, with an 8-by-10 of George W. Bush smiling toothily. Underneath was a picture of the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. His smile was less broad but nonetheless reassuring.

They called my number far more promptly than I expected, and I braced myself for a messy procedure. But fingerprint ink is now passé. Thanks to technology, you can just press your fingers on a glass surface, and, poof!, the FBI can gauge immediately if you are a communist with a drinking problem.

The technology is not foolproof, though. It took a number of tries for my prints to go through, and some manipulation that made my RA-addled joints protest loudly. At least the technician apologized. Lesson learned in Phase 2: Naturalization, like beauty, is pain.

Phase 3:  Patience is a virtue, part 2.
I heard nothing from the government for four months. Then I got a letter informing me I had an interview with an immigration officer. I was also going to be tested in English and civics. Everything, the letter said, would take about two hours. Yikes. I set out to relearn everything I didn’t pay attention to in high school.

My appointment was for noon again, and this time, in a bona fide federal building in downtown Los Angeles.

Thanks to traffic, one-way streets and faulty Mapquest directions, I got to my destination exactly at noon. I was ready to scream when I got stuck in an endless security line at the door. An old gent had to be practically denuded before he stopped beeping.

I finally got through, and ran to my assigned room like a creature possessed.  Once I got there, I found yet another cavernous space lined with plastic chairs. This time, they were mostly filled.

I also found another very large marshal sitting behind a table. This table was not so small. I showed him my letter, and he reassured me I wasn’t late.
“They’re running behind.”

He wasn’t kidding. My name wasn’t called until 2:30 p.m. I had a book with me to help pass the time, but was constantly distracted by immigration workers popping out of doors on each side of the room, calling out names Some had louder voices than others, and did not seem eager to repeat themselves.

My interviewer bore a distinct resemblance to actor Louis Gossett Jr. I followed him through a maze of cubicles to a dark hall lined with offices.
Once inside his office, he made me swear to tell the truth. I complied. Then, we basically went over my application. He asked me about my spouse, where I went to school, where I lived. And yes, I had to confirm yet again that I was not a prostitute, drinker, gambler or Communist.

The English test consisted of writing one sentence: “Today is a sunny day.”

I am proud to report I aced all 10 civics questions.

In all, the interview took 8 minutes. Lesson learned in Phase 3: The government has a lot in common with the film industry. You spend most of your time waiting for something to happen.

Phase 4: I’m an American citizen, dammit! You can’t treat me this way!
The immigration officer who interviewed me told me I would get a letter scheduling my naturalization ceremony within 30 to 60 days from the day of the interview. Since that interview was in October, I realized I would not become an American in time to vote. Still, the process had been a lot speedier that the 424 days the first letter had promised.

I got my ceremony letter in late November, with the ceremony scheduled in late December. My interviewer had given me a document confirming I passed my tests. On the back of that document was that now familiar list of questions. Are you a habitual drunkard? A gambler? A prostitute?

The government clearly believes some questions need to be answered not once, but thrice.

The ceremony was held in the Los Angeles Convention Center. All soon-to-be citizens were asked to arrive at 8 a.m. for the 10 a.m. ceremony.

It was one of those rare icy days in Southern California. I had to scrape my windshield before setting off. I left at 6:30, counting on L.A. traffic and my almost spooky ability to get lost downtown to slow me down.

It was not hard to find the ceremony. Thousands of people, representatives from almost every nation in the world, surrounded me as I took a seat in the biggest conference hall I had ever seen. You probably couldn’t fit a cruise ship in there, but a jumbo jet would have been quite comfy.

I was one of 6,400 new Americans that day, and we each got a small plastic flag  to wave in celebration. Unlike so many other goods in this country, the flag was proudly manufactured in the USA.

We all had another long wait, but, considering how many people were being naturalized, things went quite smoothly.

The ceremony did not just include the oath of allegiance. We had to sit through a flag presentation by the color guard, a short film about our new rights and responsibilities, and a filmed welcome from the president. The only part of the ceremony that really moved me was the speech from the federal judge who administered the oath. Like us, she was an immigrant. But what was really interesting was that she was a single mom who got her law degree in night school.

Now, I pride myself on being a cynical journalist. I know the streets here are not paved with gold, and that not every immigrant will have a success story. But one of the attractions of this country is that, ever since it began, it has been place where people seek second chances. It is a place of reinvention and renewal.

Lesson learned in Phase 4: I plan to enjoy being an American.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.