On August 4, 2017, I sat in the waiting room of the Atlanta immigration office waiting for an immigration officer to come by and check my citizenship paperwork for the fourth time. The yellow waiting room with more than 100 dark maroon chairs, neatly aligned into 10 per row, had been my home away from home for the past 15 years (the two other years were spent at a now-closed downtown office). Today, it was standing room only.
I’ve sat in these chairs at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office, the hub for all administrative paperwork related to one’s immigration status, waiting for status milestones for almost two decades—from work permits to green cards. In these chairs, I can watch others complete their oaths and cheer in celebration as they throw their permanent resident cards into an unlabeled cardboard box and receive a certificate that made them recognized citizens of the United States of America. Today, it was my turn. The American Dream.
This wasn’t my plan. But then the 2016 presidential election happened.
As I saw the election numbers tick higher for Donald Trump around 2am, I started printing my citizenship application. As an immigrant originating from Panama, I had been eligible for citizenship for more than three years, but had no plans to become one.
I arrived in this country as a teenager in 2000, following my mother’s marriage to my stepfather, at the age of 15. After the untimely death of my stepfather, our status was in jeopardy since he died before the required two years of marriage under the marriage-entry status.
Months of uncertainty followed, from mention of deportation to the location of our files (somewhere between Atlanta and Texas). My biological father died exactly one month after my stepfather in Panama and I wasn’t able to attend his funeral due to our uncertain status. Eventually, thousands of dollars later, our status was stable and we received our permanent residency.
The thought of giving up my light blue passport in exchange for a dark blue one felt like letting go of my heritage. While my mother decided to claim her American Dream and become a citizen immediately upon eligibility, I still remembered vividly the images of the 1989 invasion in Panama and had a hard time reconciling them with my present.
I kept wondering if I was alone in this lack of connection with my new country. When I started asking around, it became clear that I wasn’t.
British-born Lynne Tanzer also became a citizen in August 2017. Now 32, Tanzer moved to Atlanta through an exchange program to study at Georgia State University when she was 18. She permanently moved here through a K-1 fiancé visa. Now, six months later, she still has a hard time reconciling her heritage with her new status as U.S. citizen.
“I feel pangs of sadness when I say I’m British, and then I have to say, ‘Actually, I’m American.’ I think it’s really just because I’m not proud to be an American in Trump’s America,” Tanzer says.
She filled out the application shortly after the election since she was afraid Immigration and Customs Enforcement would separate her from her husband and two children. “The election results made me think that anything was possible and I had no control over any of it,” Tanzer says.
In other words: Safety came first. Having a voice in our country of residence became essential after the U.S. someone with a frightening immigration rhetoric that so far includes a travel ban, stories of U.S. citizens getting stopped at customs, ICE officers destroying evidence of detainee abuse, sanctuary cities becoming threatened, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in jeopardy.
When I came to do my citizenship test nearly three weeks before my August oath, the immigration officer administering the citizenship test quickly went through the questions before her superior walked in and interrupted her. He mentioned that he was placing six more case files on her docket and that she could do overtime on Sunday.
She already was, she mumbled. After he left her office, she complained about the long hours in the past year and how she felt like there were more applications than ever before due to her mounting overtime. Her intuition was right.
The backlog of applications increased to 708,638 in 2017 from 522,565 the year before. More than one million lawful permanent residents applied to become U.S. citizens last year, a 10.5 percent increase from 2016. While the process usually takes up to four or five months, in some regions it’s taking upwards of a year or longer.
I was first in line at my local post office to file my application on November 9, 2016. While it took my mother less than four months to become naturalized, it took me 10 months in the state of Georgia to take my oath.
Despite the fact that I was closer to the immigration finish line than most, the emotional and physical costs were debilitating. The stress of the news and the constant proposed changes to the immigration system in those uncharted months without updates or a timeline triggered my anxiety and caused extreme hair loss. I’m not alone. A Florida immigration lawyer told me that many of her clients have had nervous breakdowns and debilitating stress.
Besides the fact that the prospect of losing your home wrecks your body, the financial costs experienced by those starting the application process, whether it was right after the election or now, are overwhelming as well.
In 1989, the naturalization application was $60. Today it’s $725—almost seven times what it was back then, even adjusting for inflation.
While I was able to pay for the application fee out of my emergency fund, many permanent residents and others eligible for citizenship weren’t as prepared or solvent to pay the high fee. This is one of the main reasons why many legal permanent residents are priced out of their citizenship. A recent study showed that if provided with application fee vouchers, 41 percent of low-income immigrants eligible for citizenship would submit their applications.
Shortly after submitting my application, I started noticing a surge on my social media feed of prospective applicants asking family, friends, and strangers to help them fund the application fee and complete their citizenship journey. They announced GoFundMes or Facebook event fundraisers. They listed safety, civic participation, and family status issues among the reasons they wanted to naturalize. Becoming a citizen allows them to claim family members and protect them from deportation as well as access to better jobs.
As early as April 2016, organizations like the Immigrant Resource Center in San Francisco started raising funds to help permanent residents gain their citizenship so they could vote in the election. They raised $1,280 of the planned $5,000, helping two residents become citizens.
Tucson community activist Zaira Livier had a GoFundMe campaign set up by a close friend in October 2017, after she received violent threats from trolls about her status. Livier crossed the Mexico-U.S. border when she was eight years old. After a series of unfortunate events, including a border guard destroying her mother’s visa after an argument over the validity, she lived with her aunt in the U.S. until she became a permanent resident at age 13. In 2015, she founded Latinas for Bernie Sanders in Tucson, Arizona, despite being unable to vote due to the high citizenship application fee, and helped register upwards of 2,000 new voters.
Thanks to the GoFundMe campaign, Livier was able to submit her application in December 2017. “Citizenship paperwork is in, signed, and paid! Now we wait some more lol,” Livier wrote on her GoFundMe page. “Thank you for your support. I’ll get to vote in 2018.”
The feeling at my citizenship ceremony that day in August was more somber than at my mother’s two years earlier. During her ceremony, new citizens were welcomed by a heartwarming video of former President Obama sharing his congratulations of becoming a U.S. citizen. At mine, there was no welcome from our newly minted president. The warm feeling came only from the others receiving their certificates.
“Seeing families cheer for their people who were getting their paperwork and waving their flags so vigorously made my heart swell,” Tanzer says. “It mainly made me feel excited to register to vote, because it was so obvious that my journey, although expensive and time consuming, was very smooth compared to most stories and a choice that was all my own.”
As I repeated the words to the Pledge of Allegiance in a final step to becoming an American citizen, I broke down in tears. Not in celebration, but at the feeling of relief that I was on the other side of this monstrous process, one that many are still in every day. Somehow I survived mostly unscathed, but there are others who sit in those dark maroon chairs right outside the USCIS ceremony room, waiting to hear whether they will be safe, here in their home, for just another day. God Bless America.
This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more from our Think Local series here.