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← 3 questions to ask yourself about US citizenship

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Showing Revision 7 created 08/11/2020 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. Four years after arriving
    in the United States,
  2. like any typical 16-year-old,
  3. I went to get my driver's permit.
  4. After I showed the clerk
    my immigration papers, my green card,
  5. she told me it was fake.
  6. "Don't come back here again," she said.
  7. That's how I found out
    I was in America illegally.
  8. And I'm still here illegally.
  9. I'm a journalist and filmmaker.

  10. I live in stories.
  11. And what I've learned
  12. that what most people
    don't understand about immigration
  13. is what they don't understand
    about themselves:
  14. their families' old migration stories
    and the processes they had to go through
  15. before green cards and walls even existed,
  16. or what shaped their understanding
    of citizenship itself.
  17. I was born in the Philippines.

  18. When I was 12, my mother sent me
    to live with her parents,
  19. my grandparents,
  20. or, as we say in Tagalog, lolo and lola.
  21. Lolo's name was Teofilo.
  22. When he legally emigrated to America
    and became a naturalized citizen,
  23. he changed his name from Teofilo to Ted,
  24. after Ted Danson
    from the TV show "Cheers."
  25. Can't get any more American than that.
  26. Lolo's favorite song
    was Frank Sinatra's "My Way,"

  27. and when it came to figuring out
    how to get his only grandson, me,
  28. to America,
  29. he decided to do it his way.
  30. According to Lolo, there was no easy
    and simple way to get me here,
  31. so Lolo saved up 4,500 dollars --
  32. that's a lot of money for a security guard
  33. who made no more than
    eight dollars an hour --
  34. to pay for the fake green card
  35. and for a smuggler to bring me to the US.
  36. So that's how I got here.

  37. I can't tell you how many times
    people tell me that their ancestors
  38. came to America "the right way,"
  39. to which I remind them,
  40. America's definition of "the right way"
  41. has been changing ever since
    the first ship of settlers dropped anchor.
  42. America as we know it
    is more than a piece of land,

  43. particularly because the land that now
    makes up the United States of America
  44. used to belong to other people
    in other countries.
  45. America as we know it is also
    more than a nation of immigrants.
  46. There are two groups of Americans
    who are not immigrants:
  47. Native Americans, who were
    indigenous to this land
  48. and who were killed in acts of genocide;
  49. and African Americans,
    who were kidnapped, shipped and enslaved
  50. to build this country.
  51. America is, above all, an idea,
  52. however unrealized and imperfect,
  53. one that only exists because
    the first settlers came here freely
  54. without worry of citizenship.
  55. So, where did you come from?

  56. How did you get here?
  57. Who paid?
  58. All across America,
    in front of diverse audiences --
  59. conservatives and progressives,
  60. high school students
    and senior citizens --
  61. I've asked those questions.
  62. As a person of color,
    I always get asked where I'm from,
  63. as in, "Where are you from from?"
  64. So I've asked white people
    where they're from from, too.
  65. After asking a student
    at the University of Georgia

  66. where he was from,
  67. he said, "I'm American."
  68. "I know," I said,
    "but where are you from?"
  69. "I'm white," he replied.
  70. "But white is not a country," I said.
  71. "Where are your ancestors from?"
  72. When he replied with a shrug,
  73. I said,
  74. "Well, where did you come from?
  75. How did you get here? Who paid?"
  76. He couldn't answer.
  77. I don't think you can talk
    about America as America

  78. without answering those
    three core questions.
  79. Immigration is America's lifeline,
  80. how this country has
    replenished itself for centuries,
  81. from the settlers and the revolutionaries
    who populated the original 13 colonies
  82. to the millions of immigrants,
    predominantly from Europe,
  83. who relentlessly colonized this land.
  84. Even though Native Americans
    were already here
  85. and had their own tribal identities
    and ideas about citizenship,
  86. they were not considered US citizens
    until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.
  87. The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act
    that Black Americans fought for
  88. inspired the 1965
    Immigration and Nationality Act,
  89. which ended America's
    race-based exclusionary system
  90. that had lasted for 40 years.
  91. I could go on and on here,

  92. but my point, my larger point, is this:
  93. How much do any of us,
  94. whether immigrants
    of the past or the present,
  95. know of these crucial parts
    of American history?
  96. How much of this history makes up
    the actual US citizenship test?
  97. Have you ever seen it?
  98. It's a mostly oral test,
  99. and government officers ask applicants
    up to 10 of the 100 questions.
  100. To pass, applicants must get
    at least six answers right.
  101. I looked at the test recently,

  102. and I was aghast at the questions posed
  103. and what constitutes acceptable answers
    to the glaring omissions.
  104. There's a question about
    the Statue of Liberty and where it is.
  105. There's no question about Ellis Island,
  106. about the United States
    as an immigrant nation
  107. and the countless anti-immigrant
    laws that were passed.
  108. There's nothing about
    Native American history.
  109. There's a question about
    what Martin Luther King, Jr. did,
  110. but largely, there's inadequate
    and irresponsible contexts
  111. about African Americans.
  112. Here's an example.

  113. Question number 74
    under the American history section
  114. asks applicants to "name one problem
    that led to the Civil War."
  115. There are three acceptable answers:
  116. slavery,
  117. states' rights,
  118. economic reasons.
  119. Did my Lola and Lolo get that question?

  120. If they did get the question,
  121. do they even understand
    the history behind it?
  122. How about my uncles
    and aunties and cousins
  123. and millions of other immigrants
    who had to take that test
  124. to become Americans?
  125. What do immigrants know
    about America before we get here?
  126. What kind of citizenship
    are we applying for?
  127. And is that the same kind of citizenship
    we actually want to be a part of?
  128. Come to think of it --
    I've been thinking a lot about this --
  129. what does dignified citizenship look like?
  130. How can I ask for it when I
    just arrived here 26 years ago,
  131. when Black and Native people
  132. who have been here in America
    for hundreds of years
  133. are still waiting for theirs?
  134. One of my favorite writers
    is Toni Morrison.

  135. In 1996, a year before I found out
    I was in the country illegally,
  136. my eighth-grade class was assigned
    to read "The Bluest Eye,"
  137. Morrison's first book.
  138. Instantly, the book challenged me
    to ask hard questions.
  139. Why does Pecola Breedlove,
  140. this young Black girl
    at the center of the book,
  141. why did she want blue eyes?
  142. Who told her to want it?
  143. Why did she believe them?
  144. Morrison said she wrote the book
    to illustrate what happens
  145. when a person surrenders
    to what she called "the master narrative."
  146. "Definitions," Morrison said,
    "belong to the definers, not the defined."
  147. Once I realized that I was here illegally,

  148. I convinced myself that if I was not
    a legal citizen by birth or by law,
  149. another kind of citizenship was possible.
  150. Citizenship as participation:

  151. I engage.
  152. I engage with all kinds of Americans,
    even Americans who don't want me here.
  153. Citizenship as contribution:

  154. I give back to my community
    in whatever ways I can.
  155. As an undocumented entrepreneur --
    and yes, there is such a thing --
  156. I've employed many US citizens.
  157. Citizenship as education:

  158. We can't wait for others
    to educate us about the past
  159. and how we got to this present.
  160. We have to educate
    ourselves and our circles.
  161. Citizenship as something
    greater than myself:

  162. We are, I think,
    individually and collectively,
  163. rewriting the master narrative of America.
  164. The people who were once defined
    are now doing the defining.
  165. They're asking the questions
    that need to be asked.
  166. A core part of that redefinition
  167. is how we define
    not only who is an American
  168. but what constitutes citizenship.
  169. Which, to me, is our
    responsibility to each other.
  170. So consider your own personal narrative

  171. and ask yourself:
  172. Where did you come from?
  173. How did you get here?
  174. Who paid?