Pledging allegiance to two flags

June 1, 2005, midnight | By Katy Lafen | 15 years, 7 months ago

"I hereby declare that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign state or sovereignty of which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen."

As freshman Matena Kamara repeated these words in a Baltimore courthouse on Sept. 16, 2004, she could hardly believe that she was seconds away from becoming an American citizen. She could not wait to tell her grandmother in Liberia the good news, yet at the same time, she wondered, "Will this make me forget my culture?"

Questions like Kamara's are common for those considering naturalization, the process by which a person born outside the United States can become a legal American citizen. But despite the initial uncertainties the process might foster, the decision to become naturalized is vital to obtaining the opportunities that many immigrants hope to find when they move to the U.S. For Blazers who were born and hold citizenship in foreign countries, the decision to become naturalized reflects the duality of their lives — the struggle to maintain traditions while embracing the new opportunities they
encounter in America.

A strange sea

When Kamara stepped off the plane and onto American soil for the first time nine years ago, she felt completely adrift in a sea of strange faces and languages. She had never seen a white person before and did not speak a word of English. She was struck by the tidiness of the airport and admired how everything was "very clean and put-together."

The order of the airport was in stark contrast to the chaos that Kamara had grown up with in Liberia. With a bloody, 20-year civil war raging in her own neighborhood, Kamara remembers keeping constantly alert for the sound of gunshots. She needed to be ready for anything. "I had to stop going to school at one point, the fighting was so bad. We had to run all the time, and sometimes we went hungry because we couldn't shop," Kamara says. When her family won the immigration lottery and was granted permission to move to the U.S., they knew they had to take the chance.

While it was a far cry from the terror of civil war, the alien culture that Kamara encountered on her first day of school in America made fitting in very difficult. Initially, she dreaded going to school and encountering other students' rude stares and comments about her traditional African clothing.

Ever since freshman Ana Delgado moved to America from Peru, she has experienced a painful isolation similar to Kamara's. In Peru, Delgado's friends were like her family; she had known most of them since infancy. Growing up in a largely homogenous community made the transition to life at Blair very difficult for her.

Three years after arriving in America, Delgado feels she still has not made any meaningful relationships with other students. "I don't have any friends here," she says. "I have no social life; I can't go out on Friday nights because I don't know anybody." Delgado's parents have agreed to let her return to Peru this summer so that she can complete high school with her friends.

During her first two years in America, Kamara dealt with her loneliness by gravitating toward other recent immigrants from Africa. With them, her heavy accent and different clothes drew no stares. Eventually, she lost her insecurities around American students and began to mix with children of different backgrounds. By the time she came to Blair, Kamara no longer felt out of place: She belonged.

A life-changing choice

For Kamara, leaving the U.S. was never an option. She knows that citizenship is key to her future and that without it, she would lose many of the opportunities she moved to America to find. Kamara hopes to study interior design in London and Greece and to establish a home in America for needy African children. These plans will require travel that, because of international travel laws, would be extremely difficult without a U.S. passport.

The naturalization process, Kamara remembers, required considerable time and money. Her family had to pay a number of fees for their paperwork to be processed, which can take as long as nine months. But the wait was worth it, says Kamara. Now that she is a citizen, she need not worry about the limitations non-citizens face. In addition to the restrictions on traveling between countries, non-citizens in the U.S. cannot vote for public officials, hold government positions or receive money from most scholarships.

The benefits of citizenship became painfully obvious to freshman Jeeimy Gutierrez, who moved to America at age three, when she was refused a scholarship to a summer science program for girls because she was a non-citizen. While her best friend, who was born in the U.S., received the scholarship and attended the camp, Gutierrez had to stay home.

Soon after, Gutierrez began to realize how much the few years that she had spent in Guatemala would affect her life in America, at least until she obtained citizenship. She wants to vote in the 2008 presidential election and apply for scholarships when she begins her college search in a few years. But without citizenship, she will never be able to fulfill these dreams. For this reason, she plans to begin the naturalization process in the near future.

Gutierrez is often frustrated by the limitations of alien residency. "It's a feeling of being left out, of not being able to do a whole lot of stuff that everyone else can," she says. Sometimes, Gutierrez wishes her parents had moved to America a few years earlier, so that she would have been born an American citizen.

Still, Gutierrez knows that her loyalty to her home country will not merely disappear when she becomes an American citizen; her heritage will still remain central to her identity. "I've lived here the majority of my life, but at heart, I'm Guatemalan," she says. "I can't really ever forget about the country where I was born."

Two in one

This fierce sense of loyalty can make the idea of becoming an American citizen undesirable to some. Delgado feels that, because she was not born in America, she will always be "a visitor" and will never truly belong. "I don't want to try and be somebody else. This is not my country because I wasn't born here," says Delgado.

Indeed, not all who move to the U.S. pursue citizenship. While an estimated 7.9 million permanent residents were eligible for naturalization in 2003, only about 463,000 completed the process, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics. This is because the naturalization process can be intimidating to immigrants, says Jonathan Greene, chair-elect of the Washington, D.C., and Maryland chapter of the American Immigration Law Association.

But Kamara knows that getting her citizenship was well worth the effort. She is grateful for the wealth of opportunities that she now has access to and is satisfied with the duality of her life. During school, she fits in with her diverse group of American friends, while at home, she is immersed in her family's Liberian culture. This sort of double identity satisfies Kamara's need to uphold her traditions while accepting new ones into her life.

Walking out of the courthouse, Kamara did not feel like a completely different person as she had feared, but she did feel slightly changed. "I felt important and accepted," she says. "I could actually say 'I'm an American,' and it was true."

Katy Lafen. Katy Lafen loves the Beatles, the Rutles and Spinal Tap. More »

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