It Happened to Me: I Became an American Citizen

It took 10 years, but I finally became an American.
Publish date:
November 30, 2011
issues, immigration, citizenship

When I left my homeland of Trinidad and Tobago for Miami, Florida in 1998 I didn’t think to myself; “Say goodbye to your old life, Patrice. You’ll never live here again.” It wasn’t that serious.

Sure, I'd left my family, friends and native country behind, but I was going to college (Go Canes)! New adventures and opportunities were waiting. New boys to bat my eyelashes at. New girls to share a bathroom with.

By sophomore year, my visits back to Trinidad had become just that. Visits. After just a week and a half back home, I'd begin to daydream about my friends abroad and the new life I'd begun to create for myself. And, OK, fine, my college boyfriend.

Steve is a born and raised, true blue Midwesterner. As American as they come. We first met in the elevator of our dorm -- he lived on the 6th floor, I lived on the 7th. We became super good friends freshman year, officially started dating sophomore year, yadda yadda yadda, three weeks after we graduated, we got married.

And that was when immigration officially entered the conversation.

When you get married at age 22, people are happy for you but there’s often an underbelly of assumption and expectation, especially if one of you is a foreigner. Just replace pregnant with immigrant. “Congrats! So now you’ll be a citizen, right?” Actually, that’s not how it works.

Steve and I are coming up on a decade of marriage and I only just became a US citizen this October. Why did it take me the better part of 11 years to get it over with? Because the process is kind of expensive and excruciating. My main stumbling blocks were:

1. The money. The filing fee for citizenship paperwork is $595, and then there’s an $85 biometric fee. Attach lawyer consultations to that and the paperwork to even get a green card in the first place, it adds up to a tidy sum for a young couple to cough up.

2. It’s super stressful. Especially if you hate dealing with standardized tests and mind numbing paperwork that requires specific details on half-forgotten trips you took five years ago.

3. It’s a commitment. You need to study US civics and history and a smattering of geography. Most of the questions are the kind of thing American kids learned in junior high. Stuff like, how many senators are there? How long do members of Congress serve? What is the supreme law of the land? Name three of the 13 original states. That sort of thing. If you’ve never officially had to learn this stuff (but watch the news and the History Channel often enough), you should be alright. But if you’re a worrywart about studying and performing well on tests, see No. 2.

Plus, I’ll admit to having a little apprehension about the process. A nasty incident at the Miami International Airport (and a power-tripping immigration officer) made me very nervous about dealing with paperwork and the USCIS in general.

When you’re not a citizen of this country, entering from overseas can be an exercise in fear, and Miami International Airport is particularly awful in how they can make you feel. Once you’ve been detained in one of those glass rooms for a few hours, you never want to fly out of the country again.

And despite practically losing my island accent, I’m still a Trini. I’m proud of my country and my culture. Would being a citizen of another country in any way diminish that? Part of the Oath of Allegiance every new citizen must take is about RENOUNCING your own country. I felt some kinda way about that.

Getting through the process of citizenship became bigger and bigger in my mind. It grew into one of those things I knew I needed to do, but didn’t. Or couldn’t.

For more than a decade, I kept postponing submitting my application and my mom kept nagging me. Back home, my mother worked for 35 years in the Ministry of National Security, handling work permits in Trinidad. She knew the ugly side of dealing with immigration and didn’t want that for me. The longer I put things off, the more exasperated I made her. I tried to avoid it in conversation, but she’d always bring it up. “Did you submit your application yet?” Ugh.

Finally, this year, everything was in its right place. It was time to suck it up, write the check, take the passport photos and submit my Form N-400. I hit send in May, and from that point on things moved much more quickly than I thought they would.

I was called to a generic strip mall in Chicago to submit my biometrics in July, and there I was given the official Learn About the United States booklet. I took that booklet to two weddings this summer. I made flash cards. I listened to the audio downloads. While my husband and I zig-zagged across the country, he drove and I studied. We road tripped to Michigan and upstate New York. It struck me as wonderfully serendipitous, to be absorbing this information while driving up and through the purple mountain majesties, and across the fruited plains.

My test was on August 31, which happens to be Independence Day in Trinidad and Tobago. I went to the USCIS office in downtown Chicago feeling nervous, but prepared. This wasn’t anything like the rundown strip mall office. This was an official government office, complete with armed guards, metal detectors and harried clerks.

You don’t expect to run into anyone you know in places like this, but when I got upstairs I discovered a good friend also waiting to take her test. Like middle schoolers we were able to sit together and quiz each other right up until it was time.

I was relaxed and ready, whizzing through the first six questions without hesitation. “OK, that’s it!” the immigration officer said.

“That’s it? That’s the end? No more questions?” After 11 years, I couldn’t believe it was over!

On October 13, 2011, my husband took the day off and we went to my swearing-in ceremony. I stood in line between a guy from Bulgaria and a guy from Pakistan. I was one of 143 people from 48 countries. A clerk verified my name and information, and we packed into the seats of a courtroom like sardines to make room for as many new citizens-to-be, relatives and well-wishers as possible.

The judge administered the Oath of Allegiance, and then everyone recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Only 50 percent of judges allow photos in the courtroom, and ours let everyone’s friends and family members take photos toward the end of the ceremony. Unfortunately, all we had was my husband’s cameraphone.

As soon as I left, I registered to vote and I got the forms I’d need to apply for a passport. I just got my passport the day before Thanksgiving, and that’s when it finally hit me. My immigration journey is finally over! No more paperwork, no more tests looming in front of me, no more steep application fees to pay, a lesser likelihood of needing a special visa to travel abroad.

It’s a liberating feeling and long overdue.

After I shared my citizenship news on Facebook, a friend from back home said she was happy for me, but sad Trinidad had lost one of its own. I had to explain to her that Trinidad hadn’t lost anything! My first trip using my brand new US passport will be to visit my family and friends back in Trinidad. I’m a Trini at heart and always will be, even though my life and my future are here in the United States and I am proud and happy to live here. I’m lucky enough to have two homes.

Call me a Trinmerican, or an AmeriTrini. I’m just happy to be here.