When I was growing up in Tucson—by which I mean the four years from 1997 to 2001 when I lived with my mother in a one-bedroom apartment across the street from my high school—whenever my mother felt angry, tired, anxious, or particularly aggrieved after a long waitressing shift, she would pace our tiny apartment and point out to me the chores I should have done but didn’t. After tallying the dirty laundry, stacked up dishes in the sink, the unvacuumed carpet, and then listing the sacrifices she had made in order for me to live in America, she always ended with a warning, “If this happens again, I should throw away your passport and leave you out on the streets. Then you’ll know how lucky you are.”
Despite many more nights that ended with the same threats, my mother never did kick me out over unwashed dishes. But until I went away to college and was allowed to take my documents with me, I would regularly open the blue suitcase under my mother’s bed, and check that my passport was still in its clear plastic folder, along with my arrival card, the I-94, and copies of my father’s I-20, the “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” all of which together proved my legal status to live in the U.S. I didn’t want to believe that my mother actually wished me physical harm, but I understood what her threat implied, that a teenage Chinese girl without papers wandering the streets of Tucson, a border city, would find her punishment sooner or later.
I first set foot on American soil on May 18, 1995. My mother and I arrived in Los Angeles from Xi’an by way of Shanghai. We were on our way to reunite with my father, a graduate student at the University of Arizona. My father had left for Tucson the year prior, on an F-1 student visa. Our own visas were F-2, for dependents of foreign students.
In the 1990s, graduate school was the preferred launching pad for ambitious immigrants from mainland China, many of whom didn’t have family in the U.S., and therefore couldn’t qualify for family-reunification visas. The opening of American universities to Chinese graduate students and visiting scholars created a legal pathway to immigrate, and the F-2 program allowed dependent children and spouse to join the student for the duration of the studies. By the time my father decided to try his hand at moving abroad, at the not exactly young age of 38, stories of those who’d found jobs after their studies and remained in America were circulating in China by word of mouth. These tales of success followed a predictable pattern that began with a successful visa interview, followed by late nights at the library and stints working under the table in menial jobs, and always ended with a new car and a big house in an American suburb.
It was commonplace for the F-2 visa holder to work illegally, often as waiter or house cleaner, and be paid in cash.
My father was accepted into the master’s program in education at the University of Arizona, which he’d applied to because his brother-in-law was already there studying for a Ph. D. in psychology. In 1994, the year my father arrived in Tucson, China stabilized its currency, the renminbi, at a rate of about 8.27 to the dollar. In America, my parents’ savings would only be worth about one tenth as much as it did in China. The prevailing low wages in China in the early ’90s also meant they didn’t have much savings in the first place. Although their combined income put them in the top ten percent in Xi’an, it added up to little more than the equivalent of one hundred dollars a month. The same situation held true for nearly all of the Chinese graduate students at the University of Arizona. Without a cushion of liquid assets in dollars, for a family of three to survive in America, the meager stipends for graduate students were not enough. It was commonplace for the F-2 visa holder to work illegally, often as waiter or house cleaner, and be paid in cash.
My father found work for my mother as a nighttime nurse to an elderly Chinese-American widow. The night shift was from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. and paid $10 an hour in cash. It was widely considered to be a great job. My mother refused it. Back in Xi’an, she had been a senior manager at the provincial Planning Commission, in charge of large-scale urban projects. She didn’t want to work illegally or to change bedpans. She thought she would take classes to brush up on her English, maybe study for the GREs and go to graduate school herself. For the time being, we squeezed into my aunt and uncle’s two-bedroom duplex apartment, rent-free. There was enough slack in the budget to at least allow my mother to get over jet lag.
I was about to turn 12, at the cusp of losing my ability to easily acquire a new language, or so I was told. My task then was to learn English, as perfectly and quickly as possible. My father signed me up for MIDCO, Tucson Parks and Rec’s summer-time gang-prevention program. It was held in the cafeteria of the middle school that was across the street from my aunt’s apartment. The “program” consisted of leaving out for our use a big tray of markers and paper. When the temperature didn’t reach 100 before 11 a.m., we played flag football. It wasn’t summer school, which was what my father had promised me. But it was free. Amy, a Chinese girl my age who lived at the same apartment complex, was enrolled for similar reasons of convenience and frugality. The boys who lived at the complex went to math and sciences summer camps at the U. of A., which cost money. In the evenings, while the parents made dinner, the boys bragged to each other about formulas and equations, while Amy and I fiddled with our pipe-cleaner flowers.
Amy had moved to Tucson with her parents four years earlier, when she was eight. She spoke English and taught me to open the milk cartons. At gang-prevention school, we sat apart from the other kids, chatting in Chinese. Imitating the adults, we talked about visas and money. Amy told her me her father had arrived on a J visa, as an exchange scholar. He had recently been accepted into the Ph.D. program in the same department, to the great relief of Amy’s mother, who had given up her career as a urologist in China. Amy’s mother worked two jobs, as a home health aide at night and a waitress during the day. Amy had learned to play the keyboard, and her parents were saving up to buy her a real piano. She had a collection of comic books in Chinese, which was the only non-curricular, non-piano, almost-fun thing she was allowed to do, because it meant she was keeping up her language skills.
Then on June 12, the program took us on a field trip to Sabino Canyon, a vast nature reserve crisscrossed with tranquil hiking trails. The group went into Sabino Creek, and Amy slipped under the water and drowned. I was the last person to see her alive. In my mind, I was at least partially responsible for Amy’s death. Because she had told me that she couldn’t swim. But I didn’t speak English.
After Amy’s funeral, I refused to be further prevented from joining gangs, preferring to stay home and cry. The rest of the summer was a blur. My parents’ plans for our new American life had gotten off to a bad start. But they believed that if I could forget about Amy and the vulnerability of little girls, things would get back on track soon enough. We eventually moved into our own two-bedroom apartment. My mother set aside her plans to study for the GREs. She accepted the job nursing the Chinese widow. My parents took me to Disneyland. We never talked about Amy again. In the fall of 1995, I started seventh grade.
In Tucson, my mother’s preferred reading material was World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper published in San Francisco, which had a section devoted to immigration news and reported on the myriad legal changes that the Clinton administration was pushing out. When details about the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was revealed, there was confusion about whether or not I was still eligible for reduced rate lunches at school. When eighth grade began in the fall of 1996, I got my card.
There were also plenty of articles about raids, deportations of permanent residents and naturalized citizens who were caught up in the new laws. My mother cut out the immigration articles and left them on the dining table, which was also my desk. She said she wanted me to stay informed. I skimmed the headlines, then put them in the trash. My father preferred the local English papers and The New York Times, which made him feel reassured that the new laws were not targeting people like us: legally admitted, law-abiding, tax-paying, minimal in our use of public resources.
Then in the summer of 1997, reports about a series of raids in Chandler, Arizona made the news, in the pages of The Arizona Republic and World Journal. While researching this essay, I finally learned that the so-called Chandler Roundup was a joint operation between Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector and the Chandler Police Department. Operation Restoration, as it was called, took place from July 27 to 31. Officers from both agencies stopped people in public spaces—driving to work, biking down the street, waiting outside of supermarkets—and demanded they show documents proving citizenship or legal immigrant status. In a flagrant case of racial profiling, only those who looked as if they were Latino were stopped and questioned. Over the course of the five days, 432 undocumented immigrants were arrested and deported. In a report compiled in 1997 shortly after the raids, Arizona’s Office of the Attorney General registered at least 31 complaints from American citizens, permanent residents, or work-permit holders who were stopped by officers in the street and ordered to show “papers.”
By the time those raids made the news, my father had left Tucson to live in Jackson Heights, Queens. After graduating with an M.A. in special education, my father had found a job with a New York company that specialized in China-US trade. Its office was on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center. His work included dealing with Chinese suppliers and verifying forms; it had little to do with his degree. In 1997, the first of many more stays in Queens, I tagged along for the summer.
My parents worked harder and drove slower. Simply being outside felt unsafe.
My father didn’t talk much about the raids to me. He made copies of my passport, visa, and Social Security card, which he made sure I kept in the waterproof compartment of my backpack. He also made me memorize my passport and Social Security numbers. All I understood was that police were now walking around asking immigrants for papers. To my parents, the Chandler raids were a reminder that we needed to be invisible to all forms of authority. My parents worked harder and drove slower. Simply being outside felt unsafe.
My father was hopeful that his new employer would be open to eventually sponsoring his green card. But first he needed to adjust his status from F-1 to H-1B, a three-year non-immigrant visa that would allow us to legally extend our stay in the U.S. The initial plan was that my father would get settled in New York first, as he had in Tucson. Then my mother and I would move east after my freshman year of high school.
The first year of my father’s job didn’t go well. He switched to another company, this time on the 46th floor of the World Trade Center and restarted the H1-B process. The plan for my mother and me to move to New York was delayed and eventually abandoned. In May 2001, I finished high school in Tucson. In September 2001, my father lost his job again when the World Trade Center fell. Everything—business records, contacts, tax documents—disappeared with the towers. My father eventually found another job, and in 2006 we all became permanent residents.
Five years later, in 2011, I was finally eligible to apply for citizenship. But I resisted. In 2012, my parents divorced. My mother blamed America for all of our losses, from socks lost at the laundromat to her marriage. My father was more stoic. “It’s nobody’s fault,” he liked to say. I was, and am, angry—angry at the immigration system, with its arbitrary enforcement, restrictive quotas, and exorbitant fees.
For a long time, I was caught up in an accounting of rights and wrongs. I weighed my humiliations, accomplishments, failures, and successes as they came to me. I added up the numbers in two columns, one marked “before” and the other “after”—the demarcating line being the moment “America” became a reality—trying to balance the gains and losses. I wanted the gains to outweigh the losses, but the numbers never quite added up. I didn’t know where to put all the trauma and fear.
Then came 2015 and Donald J. Trump, the presidential candidate. His rants about immigrants, full of hatred and violent visions of racial conflict, found their way into my consciousness and there they festered. I began in earnest to try to become an American citizen. I dug out expired passports, searched for addresses of past employers, and untangled the strands of my life to fit them into a neat package that would prove my worthiness of American citizenship.
On January 14, 2016, I submitted my N-400 to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. I charged $680 on my credit card, the $595 filing fee plus another $85 to help cover the U.S. government’s costs for taking my biometrics. At dinner that night, I explained to my husband that the hole in our monthly budget was paying for a guarantee that when Trump started World War III against China, as a naturalized citizen, I could hope to be sent to a concentration camp instead of going straight to deportation.
“I hope they won’t send me too far away. It would be nice if you could come visit me,” I said.
“You could also vote, you know,” he replied.
I nodded. Yes, I will vote. Then again, we lived in California. If California went for Trump, then I was sure that no piece of paper could guarantee my safety. Citizenship could only ever be an imperfect circle of protection from tyranny.
A month after I sent in my citizenship application, I had my biometrics appointment. My fingerprints, photograph, and digital signature were scanned into a national database and checked against existing criminal records and arrest warrants. I had done this all before, for my green card. Then in June, an USCIS officer reviewed all of my answers in the eighteen parts of my naturalization application. She also tested my English skills and civics knowledge. At the interview’s end, with a smile, she informed me that she was recommending that my naturalization application be approved.
On August 3, 2016, I attended my naturalization ceremony, in the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Along with 1,200 other immigrants, I swore an oath to support and defend the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; to bear arms, perform noncombatant services. My voice trembled when I said out loud, “I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.” I felt the weight of each obligation, the strength of my newfound commitment to America, my home for the last 21 years. It’s not a terribly long time, just more than half of my life.
Walking out of the auditorium after the ceremony, I overheard a woman say loudly to her friend, “Did you see all of those Chinese people in there? They are just everywhere. I can’t wait to vote for Trump. He’ll deport all their asses.”
Once integrated into the American body politic, the newly minted citizen has the same freedom to express bigotry and intolerance as everyone else.
I was stunned. It hadn’t occurred to me that an immigrant could want Trump to become president. But that’s the rub of citizenship. Once integrated into the American body politic, the newly minted citizen has the same freedom to express bigotry and intolerance as everyone else. Citizenship would not provide me with the warmth of belonging, just as it could not stop the angry man who stood on the street corner near the Paramount and yelled “Go back to your country!”
Also outside the Paramount were cardboard cutouts of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. People flocked to the cardboard Obama and took pictures with the lame-duck President. Several people holding clipboards were helping the new citizens to register to vote. I asked for a clipboard and started filling out the form.
I had believed that I could forever remain in the process of choosing, despite the fact that I have lived in the United States since age 11. Certainly, mine was a privileged illusion. When in fact the choice had been made. In school, I learned English while reading Tocqueville, Emerson, Rawls, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s angry dissent in Bush v. Gore. I had volunteered for John Kerry and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. I had been participating, as much as the law allowed, in the civic life of America because I did love this place I called home. In many ways, I’d lived as if I was already an American. And finally, I was an American.