Weapons Scientists and Surgically Altered Actresses

You’d think they had nothing in common, right? You’d be wrong about that. But perhaps the only way to discover the connection is, as I did, to become an American citizen.

Dressed appropriately, the Wizard, a couple of friends and I shot off to an older, but nicely renovated small town theater to be naturalized (well, I did; they came to watch). And it was the experience of a lifetime. But perhaps not in the way a potential immigrant would expect. I was happy for the whole thing to be so multi-cultural — information about voting in 5 languages, people of different races and cultures so alive and so visible — but I was shocked by the images of America that pervaded the ceremony.

I’m not a great believer in ritual; I learned that ceremony doesn’t always make the difference you think it should shortly after we were married. But I do believe that what we say and do in ritual and ceremony are key to understanding what we think about ourselves — as people and as a culture. So, I was curious about what I would think and feel about being in a room, in a highly emotional situation, with a lot of people all doing and saying the same thing. I don’t do group. It scares the *!@#* out of me. For a while, I wasn’t even sure I would say the required oaths aloud — I don’t say them for the country I was born in, so I wasn’t clear on what would make me say them for a country I was choosing. (I did, though. Just this once. I even placed my hand over my heart, but I did not stand — more on that later.)

I don’t know how much you know about the process. But it’s like being in a machine: 500 people in my ceremony, and they were doing three ceremonies on my day. I was very unaware. I won’t say naive, because I guess I could have found out more, had I asked; I just didn’t think to find out. I didn’t even know who would be performing the ceremony or who else would be there. What would I have to do? These were questions to which I should have had answers, because as it was, I was unprepared.

The people being sworn in were separated from our families; we sat in rows according to some impenetrable system (whether or not we had a certain number of points on our application? people in our party? who knows?). I and the only other wheelchair user were placed at the back of the hall behind a wall over which I could barely see. I was prepared for it to be a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual gathering; I was curious about what the disability take would be.

Disability and immigration have a long history of something between uneasiness and rampant discrimination. At the moment, the ACLU has filed suit against the deportation and indefinite detention of people who are not able to understand the proceedings against them. Canada recently denied the immigration of a family, because one of the children was disabled (link to a summary of Canadian policy and the idea of disability as an “excessive demand” on the system). This link is to a post on my site about the quirks, disability and otherwise, of the N-400, the form you file to apply for naturalization.

As we waited to become American, a screen slideshow of iconic images of the US floated before us; the photographs, mainly of North-East coastal American and San Francisco, were accompanied by military music. This made sense: between the pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, New England lighthouses and Mount Rushmore (no, not coastal), were pictures of America’s troops, her planes, her ships, and her other paraphernalia of war. I was curious about the people in the pictures of immigrants of the past — shown, of course, in huddled, downtrodden mass poses of people yearning to be free. What had happened to them? Where had they gone?

Mostly, though, I was surprised by the pictures chosen as representative of the country. So many politicians seem to refer to the mid-West and South as places of the average American, but there were no pictures of, as my friend put it, “waving wheat.” No, the America pictured was both coastal and warlike. For some, the coasts are home to America’s elite. And this made the conjunction of imagery somewhat incongruous. Do Washington, New York, and New England elites fight the country’s wars?

I don’t know how much standardization there is between ceremonies. Was mine an accident of location or are they all like this? Who conducts them? (An official from USCIS, it turns out). I worry about standardization because mine was totally chaotic. It’s an awful thing to say. But it was totally chaotic. The officiator had not practised what he was going to say. So, he just talked; he wasn’t the best of public speakers. I think he was aiming for inspirational, but he didn’t have anything original or new to say. He rambled (he probably does a gazillion of these things and the awesome nature of the moment wears thin). When he opened it up to his counterpart, they joined in reading a list of notable Americans.

I have to admit. Many of the names read aloud were unfamiliar to me, so the effect is clearly a product of my ignorance. Nonetheless, the names that I recognized were either famous weapons scientists or actors. You can imagine my horror at, and I quote verbatim, the following string of names: Liam Neeson, Madeleine Albright, Pamela Anderson… Yes, you read that aright. My jaw hit the floor, and I missed the other names. I looked around; no one else seemed perturbed and the moment rolled by: these are notable Americans. And, in truth, I guess they are. After all, no one has heard of me; my name won’t be read before thousands of people, eagerly anticipating the moment when they will become citizens of a great nation. Snobbery or not, I want to differentiate between the work of the first female Secretary of State and the work of an actress perhaps most famous for her body and personal life.

I was drawn back into the ceremony at the moment we were supposed to take the oath. We were called upon to stand; the other wheelchair user and I looked at each other. He winked; I rolled my eyes. He chortled and was shushed by his family. There was a roll-call of countries of origin; people had come from all over the world, including the USSR and also Russia. Unbeknownst to me, my peeps and I all had a similar moment: had the person from the USSR been in the system so long that their country of origin was now just Russia? Silicon Valley has a particular immigrant population: mostly, people hailed from India, Pakistan, China, or Mexico. There were a couple of Brits and Canadians.

The current naturalization oath is:

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; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

I took it, reflecting on the exchange in my interview about whether I as a disabled person could bear arms — it was decided that I could usefully fly a drone plane. I found myself fascinated that the discourse of documented immigration is one of war while that of undocumented immigration is one of work. War disables so many of America’s citizens, transferring them in an instant from membership in a group of those represented in her defining imagery to membership in a group with the highest unemployment statistics. Once a soldier; now, mostly, invisible.

But before I could get any further following the bitter irony, I had become a Yank. We were formally invited to wave our flags. I opened my voter registration materials, took out my little plastic flag, glanced at my disabled comrade to my right, and held it up in front of me.

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13 comments for “Weapons Scientists and Surgically Altered Actresses

  1. Mara
    August 13, 2010 at 3:43 am

    The thing those three people have in common- Liam Neeson, Pamela Anderson, Madeleine Albright- is that they are all naturalized US citizens. I think the point of including that list was probably to demonstrate that naturalized citizens are not second class in the US. (Provided of course that they are cis, het, white….)

  2. RD
    August 13, 2010 at 4:10 am

    RE: waves of wheat/mid-west

    Or what about the Rockies esp. RMNP, the Tetons and Wind Rivers, Appalachia, the Gulf Coast, City of Rocks Idaho, Mesa Verde, Devil’s Tower/Mato Tipila, Castle Valley Utah, Death Valley, Zion National Park, Joshua Tree, Dinosaur National Monument, the Sonoran desert, or hell, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or Yellowstone/Old Faithful!

  3. Lue
    August 13, 2010 at 5:35 am

    That oath is really interesting, especially the part about renouncing fidelity to any other country. From a UK perspective, it seems fairly sinister – new subjects of the UK say something along the lines of ‘I promise to be loyal to the UK and uphold her democratic laws’. Nothing in it about forgetting where you came from. This is born out with the reference to Liam Neeson as a ‘great American’. He’s Irish! Sure, he might be an American citizen *now*, but the man is Irish: born in Ireland, grew up in Ireland, went to university in Ireland (suggesting he lived there until at least early adulthood). Do these markers get junked because he took an oath?

    Considering so many citizens of the US have such strong ties to other countries, nations, and cultures, an oath that explicitly refuses to recognise such ties comes as a surprise to me.

    Of course, the UK also have this strange test that requires new subjects to answer questions about UK history and culture that I, having been born here and lived here all my life, would struggle to answer.

  4. Joe
    August 13, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Doesn’t the oath run counter to people who hold dual citizenships?

  5. Wheelchair Dancer
    August 13, 2010 at 9:50 am

    @Mara… Yes, that’s what they have in common. They were being held up as models for us newbies.

    @Lue… The single loyalty thing is interesting. Fortunately, as I understand it, an oath renouncing British citizenship, particularly when done for the purposes of gaining citizenship of another country, doesn’t count. To undo your Britishness, you have to speak before a member of HMG’s government.

    @RD … Yes, I think I recognized Yellowstone. Remember, though, these are my impressions of the overall thing rather than a statement of fact. That said, I would swear I didn’t see, for example, the Grand Canyon….


  6. Kaz
    August 13, 2010 at 10:36 am

    I was also surprised to see that oath of single loyalty thing in there, because I’d always thought it was possible to be naturalised as a citizen of the US without being forced to lose your old one… unlike in my home country – Germany – which not only forces people who are getting naturalised as German citizens to give up their old nationality but also makes German citizens who get naturalised as citizens as other countries lose their German citizenship. *sigh* I always thought the US was better about that than we were.

  7. August 13, 2010 at 10:36 am

    I wouldn’t have been able to take that oath without omitting the part about bearing arms in military service as required. And I do find it curious the wording of the oath itself. It makes it sound as though being American is some exclusive right that ought to supersede any prior allegiance.

    I doubt it’s an expectation made upon native-born Americans like yours truly. So much fear drives that oath and that’s what really bothers me.

  8. Lue
    August 13, 2010 at 10:39 am

    @WCD. Thanks for the info, I didn’t know that. I quite like that idea – one country’s oath explicitly saying ‘you belong to us now, mwuahahaha!’, while the other is all like ‘nuh-uh, your oath doesn’t trump mine, OWNED’. A more serious version of unintentionally crossing one’s fingers behind one’s back, if you will.

    I’ve only visited the US a few times, but those people that I met were very keen to reference their heritage as well as their citizenship of the US state, e.g. ‘African-American’, or ‘Brasilian-American’, or ‘Anglo-American’. ‘American’ in this context doesn’t seem to define nationhood so much as it does a reeeeeaaally big zipcode. In NYC, quite often this was dropped, so I met teenagers who had clearly grown up in the States but who identified themselves as Puerto Rican, for example. They didn’t seem to need or want the ‘American’ – a very simple, but effective, act of resistance. So it’s strange to see that the oath doesn’t reflect such practices.

    We don’t have this so much in the UK, and I think the US custom is a much more preferable system, allowing individuals to publically retain a healthy sense of their own heritage and culture, as well as demonstrate loyalty to the country in which they happen to be a citizen. Calling yourself ‘British’, and only ‘British’, for example, eclipses any trace of family lineage, race, or dual nationality. It’s not at all common to hear ‘Anglo-Pakistani’, for example, or ‘Anglo-African’ – perhaps it might be better if such usages did become more of a norm.

  9. August 13, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    The “bear arms” bit makes me wonder if Quakers (for example) could ever become naturalised citizens of the USA? Do they have a different oath for avowed pacifists, or what?

  10. Dan
    August 13, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    @SnowdropExplodes: Actually the “take up arms” clause is a debate that occurred at the founding of the country. Have a look at the wikipedia article for the Second Amendment. It went through quite a few revisions before being adopted. I believe the oath is a shortened version of the whole agreement (which you sign) which states something like ” I would not hesitate take up arms or perform a service of national importance on behalf of the united states”. Presumably, pacifists could do work of national importance in lieu of actual fighting.

    @Joe, Leu, WCD: WCD is right, “The British government does not recognize statements made to foreign governments by British citizens about changing their British citizenship” as an embassy worker once told me. The oath is largely figurative; you are supposed to renounce your other citizenships at your earliest convenience.

    This is the law in the United States which is why naturalized citizens who retain their other citizenships are often quiet about that fact (of course, it doesn’t work the other way: it’s perfectly legal to acquire other citizenships after you’re naturalized. Sometimes I feel like Asterix and the Britons when reading United States immigration rules). IANAL.

    In fact, IIRC, the only protection a dual citizen has is a State Department rule that instructs state department employees (and I believe USCIS) to only inquire about other citizenships in the case of criminal activity. In fact, in another dealing with an embassy official (US this time), she said “we don’t care about other citizenships, I had a man in here once that had 7 including US”. Of course, state department rules can be changed on a whim by the president. The law stays on the books because removing it would trigger a storm of xenophobia and no immigrant wants to challenge the system in case s/he gets their citizenship revoked and/or deported.

    tl; dr – As with all immigration things, you’re fine provided you don’t draw attention to yourself and you don’t give USCIS a reason to care. Speaking up about the widespread injustices, xenophobia, or blatant power tripping that you’ve witnessed, for example, is not recommended.

  11. August 13, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    good thing (?) I was born here (the USA). I could not (honestly) take most of that oath. I don’t defend all laws. (prop 8 of california, 1070b in arizona, the legal status of marijuana). Or even all parts of the constitution (ERA please). I am anti military, so would not take up arms. And I would consider the ethical implications of any action “required of me by law.”

    Not to mention I don’t believe in “god.” But I’m still a citizen. Go geography.

  12. makomk
    August 15, 2010 at 3:04 am

    Interesting. I know that the recent Equality Act here in the UK has a fairly broad exception to allow the immigration authorities to discriminate based on disability – mainly aimed at things like excluding people with AIDS. (Possibly with exceptions for white cis het people from the right countries and backgrounds, not sure…

  13. Jim
    August 16, 2010 at 11:01 am

    “Considering so many citizens of the US have such strong ties to other countries, nations, and cultures, an oath that explicitly refuses to recognise such ties comes as a surprise to me.”

    Lue, it does sound harsh, but actually it is precisely because people have such strong ties that it has be recognized and dealt with. Yo mention Liam Neeson – think of all the IRA fund-raising in America from fifth and sixthe generation Irish-Americans who apparnetly had not renounced thier ties enough.

    While it seems a waste of time in the case of immigrants from Britian, twice it has been a big deal with German-Americans – 51 million people – not to mention the disgusting businees of Japanese internment. It’s about divided loyalties, bioth externally orineted and domestically. One of America’s real triumphs is getting so many Europeans to live togehter duirng a time when other Europeans were busy butchering each other. That comes from renouncing former ties.

    “‘American’ in this context doesn’t seem to define nationhood so much as it does a reeeeeaaally big zipcode. ”

    Yes. This. It is not the European Blut und Boden concept of nationhood. That applise to the Lakota or Cherokee Nations here. It is much more like the Chinese or Indian concept of nationhood – trans-ethnic.

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