My Life as an Alien

by Carol Grant

From 1964 to 2000, I was identified by the US government as an Alien. Granted they gave my title a flourish by graciously adding “Resident“(aka legal) to that designation but I was identified by that stigma for 36 years. Compared to many other immigrants to the USA, the process by which I had attained this status was fairly uncomplicated. As a graduate of a rigorous nursing training program in Canada, mine was among the desired professions, and I was approved for admittance to the US without much hassle. In another important way, I was far from the proverbial immigrant to the USA. I had not spent years dreaming of coming to “the promised land”, was not escaping hardship or harassment and in all honesty, was not even planning to stay very long. I was young, adventurous and loved to travel. I always planned to return to Canada for my real life, but the fates intervened, and I met and married the love of my life who also had wanderlust. We have lived in the USA ever since interspersed with periods of extended travel and also experienced living in Europe on fellowships on two occasions.

People ask me why I waited for over 35 years to apply for American citizenship. I had the treasured green card which identified me as an alien; one would think that I would be as anxious as the rest of the world to have the cherished US citizenship. Well, I admit that I was and am very chauvinistic about Canada and was very reluctant to break that tie with my homeland. As I looked into the process for becoming “naturalized” I read the USA citizenship oath with shock and amazement. The opening sentence of the pledge states:

“I hereby declare on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.”

How could I utter such archaic and drastic words? I love Canada; it is a country with wonderful resources, values and beauty and it will always be my motherland. Like many of my Canadian compatriots, I remember being very critical of American policy in those turbulent years of the 60s through the 80s. These were not the most stable or admirable years in US history. We were living through the Vietnam War morass, the assassinations of political and civil rights leaders followed by the divisive political years of Nixon and Reagan. My husband and I talked seriously about moving to Canada during these years, and he even had an interview at a Canadian university in Toronto. Many times we said to each other: “Well, if “so and so” (insert here Nixon, Reagan or Bush) gets elected, we are moving to Canada!” My husband never expressed any disappointment that I had not “converted” and seemed to understand my resistance. However, I had one problem with my alien status: I was a woman without a political voice because I was not eligible to vote in either country. Canada allows absentee voting only for members of their diplomatic corps. I was always very involved in US politics but I did not have voting rights.

I was able to apply for dual citizenship for our three children after the Canadian Government passed a law granting citizenship to children born abroad to Canadian mothers. We projected that our children might choose to go to university in Canada where the tuition is a fraction of the U.S. schools or if there was ever another Vietnam- type war, they would have options. Of course, the USA does not officially recognize the concept of “dual citizenship” so they travel with US passports. Whenever I returned from travel abroad, I had to join the long line of Non-Citizens at Immigration while my family breezed through the Fast Lane.

The years passed by and I lived my busy life as an alien who had strong bonds to both countries but felt I was an active citizen of neither one. Fast forward to pre-retirement discussions with tax accountants, investment counselors etc. and the reality of my dilemma became clear. I was informed that if I remained a Resident Alien, I could lose certain essential privileges in the future. For instance, the US Government could alter at any time the eligibility of legal aliens for Social Security, Food Stamps, Medicare, Medicaid and other benefits for which I had contributed during my working years. If I survive my husband, I would inherit our estate but when I die, our children would have to pay a much higher rate of estate taxes to the Federal Government than they would if I were an American citizen. I now have to admit that this prediction was the driving force behind my decision to finally seek US citizenship. Hardly a noble reason but being a frugal Canadian mother, I was going to look out for my family even after my death…that is, assuming any money was left.

So, the citizenship application ordeal began. Everyone assumes that the process for someone who has the precious green card (which is BLUE, by the way) will be efficient and speedy. The reality is far from that and the length of time it took for this law-abiding, hard-working Caucasian woman to become a US citizen was over three years! My application forms and photos were submitted and several months went by. I eventually received instructions that the next step would require official fingerprints to be taken at the Hartford Federal Courthouse which meant I was required to take a half-day off work. Another long wait ensued until eventually an official brown envelope arrived. The enclosed report stated that my fingerprints were not readable and that I would have to have the procedure repeated. Their next feedback was that my fingerprints could not be read even by the FBI since I had apparently worn them off! I have never been accused of being an obsessive housekeeper and I didn’t do intensive manual labor in my lifetime so how had they disappeared? Here’s a hint for all “older” thieves; no evidence can be gathered from your old fingers! So, now it became my responsibility to prove that I did not have a criminal history, and I was required to appear at the Police Stations of any town or city I had lived in during the previous 10 years! How demeaning to go to two police departments and ask them to “do a search” on me. I submitted these completed forms and again after many months, another Department of US Immigration envelope arrived. This time, the unbelievable news was that since my original application had been sent in more than two years previously, my photos were outdated and I would have to submit new ones. At this point, I was more than ready to remain a Canadian until I passed finger-printless into the next world. I was fed up dealing with stone-faced, rude bureaucrats who seemed to delight in putting up barriers to anyone who dared to join their privileged ranks. I felt great empathy for all the folks from foreign lands who sat next to me in these drab rooms also missing work while waiting hours to have their numbers called. Maybe it was their great desire to be accepted for citizenship which finally encouraged me and so I persevered.

Finally, all my paperwork was apparently in order and I was assigned a specific time and date for the dreaded interview and test. I had studied the required information about the US government and Constitution and entered the unwelcoming and intimidating waiting room apprehensively. I could not believe the starkness of this windowless room; there were rows of metal chairs, bare dirty beige walls, one closed door with a DO NOT ENTER sign and one slot into which you were instructed to slide ALL of your precious identification documents. I could only imagine how frightening it must have been for most of these non-English speaking immigrants to give up their papers after the struggles they had been through to obtain them. Fear and apprehension was palpable in the room. A few people whispered to each other nervously but most of us were unaccompanied as no relatives, friend or lawyers were allowed. We waited. We had been given a very exact appointment; mine, for example, was 10:20 am. Every 20-30 minutes, the door would open and a very stern looking official in an Immigration uniform would mutter a name. With the many nationalities represented in the room, it was often difficult for the person being called to recognize the pronunciation of her name. With great exasperation, the official would repeat the name and some poor soul would disappear into the void beyond. Lunchtime came and went with the intervals between door-openings getting longer.

Eventually, my name was called. The officer did not introduce himself, led me to his office where he handed me the “exam” and promptly made a personal phone call. I handed him my completed test which he reviewed and then without a smile or even “Congratulations”, he said: “Your date for swearing in is June 20th in Bridgeport, CT at 9 am.” I gulped as that was the exact day we were relocating to Vermont from Hartford and I didn’t know how I was going to be in two places at once. When I asked him if there were any alternative dates or locations closer to Hartford, he answered me with disdain: “Be there or you start this process over!” I stumbled out of his oppressive office and as I was leaving the courthouse, I realized that I had left my jacket behind! Not knowing his name, I had to go back into the dreaded waiting room and wait for almost an hour until he finally opened the door again to call another applicant. When he saw me approaching him, he snidely said: “Did you forget something?” As we went down the hall to his office, he muttered: “Well, this must be your lucky day because after you left, I found a cancellation for a space in Middletown next week. Do you want it?” I was elated as I worked in that city and could go to the courthouse easily from work. I guess his lunch had made him a little more humane.

The date of my citizenship ceremony happened to be June 14th, National Flag Day, and I discovered that it was to be a special event. There were about 30 other applicants dressed in their best finery and most accompanied by family members or friends with cameras. Each of us was given a small American flag to hold. There was a feeling of great anticipation and excitement in the air. I had declined offers from family members and friends to come with me as I was still bitter and exasperated by the process I had endured. It was just something I had to get through.

The judge who was going to administer the oath and welcome us as new citizens was a Greek American woman who managed to change my mood and attitude with just a few words. Those words were personal and moving. She shared with us that she was a daughter of Greek immigrants who could never have imagined that their daughter would someday be a lawyer let alone an American judge. She talked of their struggles to immigrate and their hard work after they had come to America. She did not usually officiate at these ceremonies but had requested to do so on this day as a gesture of gratitude to them. She listed the 11 different countries we applicants came from and said that after doing the group pledge of allegiance, she wanted to do something untraditional by coming down from the bench to congratulate each of us personally. We were welcome to have a family member or friend take a photo of that encounter. When I had my moment in her sun, she asked me where in Canada I was from and then told me how she loves Montreal and visits often. Unexpectedly, I was extremely moved by this ceremony and so grateful that at last as a newly minted Canadian-American I could feel pride in my adopted country.

In November 2000, I voted for my first time in Vermont where I was elated to cast my votes for Democrat Al Gore for President, Republican Jim Jeffords for Senator and an avowed Socialist Bernie Sanders for Congress.

Carol Grant enjoys life as a Canadian American in two contrasting locations, rural Vermont and New York City. The fact that the Vermont border touches Quebec, her birthplace, pleases her. As another important American election draws near, she will visit Montreal this autumn to checkout available Real Estate…just in case.