On August 12, 2015, almost twelve years to the day I first arrived in America, I was sworn in as a US citizen.
My journey to the Promised Land—which hinged on education, work, and marriage—was easier than most, but not without anxiety. In 2006, I graduated from the University of Michigan and found a job in Denver. My employment and authorization to stay in America was contingent on receiving a professional work visa, the H1-B. In 2004, despite the strong economy, President George W. Bush had reduced the cap on H1-B visas from 195,000 to 65,000 a year. The year I applied, there were three times as many applicants as there were available visas, and USCIS held a lottery to determine which applications they would review.
photo of Angel Island by Teow Lim Goh
I did not win the lottery that year, but as a citizen of Singapore, I was eligible for the H1-B1, a special class of visas created under the Singapore-United States Free Trade Agreement. The catch was that I could not apply for permanent residency while I held the H1-B1. My then-boyfriend, now-husband had a green card then, which meant he could sponsor me if we married, but there were also quotas for spouses of permanent residents and I would have to wait months or even a year or two for a green card, during which time I would likely have to leave the country. If I had wanted to get married and have children then, I risked separation from my family.
I was on the H1-B1 for two years before I finally hit the H1-B jackpot. These were also the years of the Great Recession. The H1 visas must be sponsored by an employer—if you lose your job at any point, you lose your visa status. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had lost my job; I was lucky that I worked for a fiscally prudent company.
My husband proposed to me on the day of his citizenship test. I joked, “Did you pass?” As the spouse of a US citizen, I was no longer subject to a quota, and I received my green card within three months of application. The green card is conditional: After two years, I had to prove to immigration officials that I was still happily married. Luckily for me, I did not marry an abuser. A friend’s well-intentioned marriage to a US citizen fell apart in less than two years, and he spent a great deal on attorney fees to resolve his green card issues, worrying for months that he would not be allowed continue the life he had built here. As the spouse of a US citizen, I could apply for citizenship within three years of receiving my green card, which I did. My citizenship grants me the inalienable right to live in this country. It also affirms that I am a part of the body politic.
When Donald Trump was a candidate whose nativist rhetoric propelled him to the front of the Republican primaries, he said, among other things, that Mexican immigrants are rapists, that he would deport all undocumented immigrants, that he would rescind birthright citizenship, and that he would build a wall on our southern border and make Mexico pay for it. He also equated Muslims with “radical Islamic terrorists” and called for an entry ban on all Muslims, including refugees. While he vacillated on some of the details, the overall message was clear: He wanted to restrict immigration on the basis of race and religion.
Now, weeks after Trump’s inauguration, he has already issued an executive order that suspends entry from seven Muslim-majority countries for ninety days, suspends the refugee admission program for 120 days, and bars Syrian refugees for the indefinite future. The order was effective immediately, which meant that a number of people were already in the air when their entry status changed. Chaos ensued at airports as immigration officials tried to figure out who was admissible and who was not. Many people with valid visas to enter the United States were detained for hours; some were deported.
photo by Geoff Livingston/flickr
Two Iraqi men detained at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport—a translator for US troops during the Iraq War, and a man on his way to join his wife and seven-year-old son in Houston— became plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. While stays have been won and upheld in court, most recently by three judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Trump has promised to fight for his executive order, determined to restrict immigration—and, in so doing, maximize suffering—on the basis of nationality and religion.
Exclusion laws are not new to America. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1889, the US Supreme Court upheld its legality on the grounds of national security. The law banned the entry of Chinese laborers and sex workers, making exceptions for merchants, diplomats, US citizens, teachers, students, and their immediate families. It also denied all Chinese people the right to become US citizens.
In practice, Chinese at the border, regardless of their legal status or profession, were treated as suspicious until they could prove they were admissible. Merchants had to show financial records of their businesses. Women had to answer intrusive questions about their sex lives. Family members were separately interrogated about the minutiae of their lives, from the location of the rice bin in the house to the number of steps to the front door. If the stories matched, officers treated the relationship as legitimate; if not, they could be denied entry.
Between 1910 and 1940, Chinese immigrants were detained and interrogated at the Angel Island Immigration Station, which, like Alcatraz, was chosen for its cold and remote location in the San Francisco Bay. Many Chinese people were held at Angel Island for weeks, months, and in a few cases, years before they knew whether they could land.
Dormitory at Angel Island Immigration Station | wikipedia
In 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Act, which, among many other things, denied admission to all “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” This included foreign-born spouses of Chinese merchants and US citizens. Some women had boarded ships to join their husbands in America before the law was implemented, but when they arrived at Angel Island they found they were not permitted to land. Like the people held at airports this past weekend, these women had followed the rules. Their only crime was their race.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was initially set to expire in ten years. It was renewed for another ten years in 1892, extended without limit in 1902, and finally repealed in 1943, sixty-one years after it passed. If I were born a hundred years ago, I would have been one of the women detained and humiliated at Angel Island, instead of an engaged citizen and participant in America’s civic life.
I also know that my US citizenship is a kind of bulwark. It is not a guarantee of protection—just ask the Chinese American citizens stranded on Angel Island without reentry certificates or the Japanese American citizens interned during World War II. But if I were not a citizen, I would be less invested, more hesitant to speak up about politics.
What is citizenship? It is firstly a legal privilege that we inherit at birth. In most countries, children are automatically given their fathers’ citizenship; in most cultures, identity is derived from the father’s lineage. Some countries, mostly those in which women have a modicum of equality, also give children their mothers’ citizenship. A few countries confer birthright citizenship to children born within their borders to non-citizens. We are citizens of a nation or two by virtue of blood and family, our most primal roots. We define our power and identity by our origins.
To take up citizenship in another country is to naturalize : to be made natural, normal. In this framework, to immigrate is to move away from our origins, break with our lineage, and become unnatural and alien, which is aberrant to many who subscribe to the idea of a patrilineal homeland.
For years, my husband pasted images of little green men on the folders in which he kept his immigration paperwork. Even green card holders are not yet normalized: The official term for them is Permanent Resident Alien, each with their own Alien Registration Number. Debates on immigration and citizenship are ultimately debates on race. Who can we consider kin? Who can we make normal?
The Chinese Exclusion Act did not keep out the Chinese. For a fee, Chinese men in America would claim unrelated men in China as their sons. Brokers drew up coaching papers, fictitious family histories that the migrants would memorize on the voyage to America and toss into the sea before entering the San Francisco Bay. If all these claims of family relationships had been true, nine out of ten children of Chinese people in America would have been boys. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake also destroyed many records; afterwards, many Chinese people claimed to be citizens or children of citizens, and America accepted most of these petitions. A federal judge later said that if all these claims had been true, each Chinese woman in America before 1906 would have had 500 children.
But the law was not just about the entry ban. The Chinese Exclusion Act made life difficult for the Chinese, US citizens and non-citizens alike. It legitimized discrimination against them, whether in employment, housing, or the courts.
Angel Island Immigration Station | photo by cifraser1/flickr
In 1885, three years after the passage of the exclusion law, white coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming rioted and killed at least twenty-eight Chinese residents. A fight broke out between white and Chinese miners over the right to work in a particular room, and a Chinese man was stabbed in the skull. The whites walked off the job, went home for their guns and knives, and marched through the streets to demand that the Chinese leave town. They blocked the bridges to Chinatown, shot at the fleeing Chinese, and when they realized that many Chinese were hiding in their cellars, they burned down their homes. No one was indicted for the murders.
The Rock Springs Massacre was the culmination of a decade of labor unrest and racial hostility in the mines. Ten years before, Union Pacific Coal had brought in Chinese workers to break a strike. But the Chinese Exclusion Act and the demagoguery around it dehumanized the Chinese, creating an atmosphere in which their murder was acceptable. I thought of this following Trump’s executive order, when a mosque in Texas burned down and a white nationalist shot six people in a Quebec mosque.
Seven years ago, I visited Angel Island for the first time. I rode a ferry across the bay, climbed a steep flight of stairs, and walked along a service road to the immigration station. The sky was clear and I could see for miles around the bay. I remember thinking that unlike those who were held here, I had the freedom to walk where I wished. I also remember thinking that here, the sea is both a border and a vista of possibility. Borders don’t always keep people out, but they can keep those of us inside from looking beyond.
photo by danbrazelton/flickr