Commentary: My Family's Citizenship Stories

Feb 9, 2017

My mother told me her American citizenship ceremony took place in a high school auditorium. “Maybe two dozen of us became citizens,” she started off then changed her mind. “No probably more.” She mentioned how they served punch and cookies afterwards in the long hallway lined with lockers.

Patrice Gopo

The year was 1984. The same year I had a lemonade stand, started kindergarten, and turned five. I don’t remember the high school auditorium or the punch and cookies, but I do remember a stranger reaching for my mother’s thumb and rolling it across a black ink pad. He pressed her thumb against a sheet of paper with room for nine more prints. When he finished, he offered my mother a tissue to wipe her fingers. As my mother and I walked out of the immigration office, I held her ink-stained hand.

Months after that she took an oath and pledged allegiance to a country she’d lived in for a decade. No longer a Jamaican. Now a Jamaican-American.

Thirty years later, in 2014, I sat with my two young daughters in a large room packed with rows of chairs. A certain stuffiness mixed with excitement overwhelmed our local immigration office auditorium. Each seat was occupied. My girls and I, we wore red, white, and shades of blue. I craned my neck to watch my husband’s lips move as he took an oath and pledged allegiance to a new country. No longer a Zimbabwean. Now a Zimbabwean-American. Tears pooled in my eyes, and I found my arms tightening around our daughters. Instead of punch and cookies in a high school hallway, our neighbor treated us to lunch and spoke of the day many years before when he also became an American citizen.

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Once my mother told me that she decided to become a citizen because she worried that something could happen: a war, a political crisis, an unseen event. She thought our country might divide the citizens from the permanent residents and split families in two. She envisioned my father, my sister, and me sent in one direction and her sent in another. At first I laughed at her active imagination. Then I recognized her wisdom.

In recent days I read of people barred from my country. Refugees. Individuals with visas. Permanent residents like my husband and my mother once were. I read of seven countries, and I think how easily seven countries can morph into 17 countries or 77 countries. Over three decades ago, I slipped my small hand into my mother’s ink-stained one. And now as I gather with my husband and our girls around our dinner table and offer prayers of thanks, I squeeze my husband’s hand tight. We have papers and blue passports, and I believe we are immune to the ways politics could part a family. I think of other families wanting, longing right now to have this sense of safety.

I admit I have a certain level of confidence in my family’s security. Lately, though, I find myself wondering if perhaps I’m also naïve.

Patrice Gopo's essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including online in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in Charlotte, and she is at work on a collection of essays.