From South Africa to the States: Becoming an American citizen

Adding some American spirit to my South African spirit was an incredibly emotional experience for me.

I stood in line the other day at the United States Postal Service office waiting to get my passport application seen to. As I was standing in line, I was remembering the day I became a US citizen, the day that validated my family’s extremely tough immigration journey.

I thought I would write a little bit about that day to give hope to all the immigrants who are enduring the tough road to citizenship and to tell you what you can look forward to.

We were brought here on an H1B visa and the minute we arrived in the US our fancy American immigration attorneys dropped us like a sack of hot potatoes. We were told that there was absolutely no way we could get a green card and being the ‘top’ law firm that they were, they were not prepared to risk their pristine statistics. We met with a few other immigration attorneys and were told the same thing.

Hopeless, my father was telling his best friend about our struggle and his friend told us of an excellent South African immigration attorney in Florida. We met with him and although he warned us that it would be tough, he was up for the challenge and so he took on our case. We renewed our H1B once, received our green card and several years later applied for citizenship.

We spent good quality time as a family preparing for our citizenship test and after a few months had passed we had out interview with the terrifying INS where we took our tests. The interview went swell and we passed the tests. We waited eagerly for our naturalisation ceremony date to arrive in the mail so that we could be sworn in as American citizens.

Now let’s get to the good part – the naturalisation ceremony. Our ceremony date was 21 October 2013 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. We took a cab there and the cab driver was excited for us as he was an immigrant himself. I had little expectations and very few feelings until we arrived at the stadium. There were thousands of immigrants waiting to be sworn in as American citizens. I don’t know that I could even begin to describe the energy or the emotion in that stadium that day but I will do my absolute best.

Here are ten things you will likely experience at your naturalization ceremony:

1. Impeccable organisation 

As I said previously, there were thousands of people and surprisingly everything was in order and completely organized. Truly one of the most well-run events I have ever witnessed. There was clear signage and it was almost impossible to end up in the wrong line as people were guiding you every step of the way.

2. Tears everywhere

People were crying tears of joy. I was in a room with people who I felt knew my journey because they had taken the same one. One thing that stuck out to be was an elderly man who was there with who I presume were his children. He spoke very little English, could barely stand but he had tears in his eyes and could not stop hugging his children. I wondered how long he had waited to become a citizen. I wondered if maybe his wife had died before the time and lastly I wondered what he had to give up to get to this day. I could see nothing but joy in his eyes.

3. American flags will be everywhere

You will receive an American flag with your program and I noticed it was not long before thousands of immigrants, who had once waved flags of their home country, were proudly waving their American flags.

4. You will watch a video

Usually I hate videos that are shown at governmental events but this video was spectacular. This video made me feel so proud of the country I fought so hard to be a citizen of. The video is educational for the older folks who did not attend school in the States as it explains a lot of the laws, history and principles America was built on.

5. Speeches

A lot of heartfelt speeches were given but my favorite by far was the one the Irish judge gave. He shared his family’s immigration story and spoke with such conviction and pride. He made us feel extremely special and he congratulated us on getting to this day.

6. The Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America

This was the most emotional part for me and the part where tears came streaming down my cheeks. These were not just words to me these were promises I was making to America. I was leaving behind my allegiance to South Africa and pledging my allegiance to America. That alone carries a lot of weight but I was prepared to do it and so I did.

7. Handing in your green card

Although we were just handing over a card, the action was extremely symbolic. I felt sad and excited at the same time. I had carried this with me all the time, because I had to, and now I was giving it up. My identity was changing. I was no longer a green card holder I was now a citizen.

8. The naturalisation certificate

You will use this to get your American passport which you can do onsite. I really wish I would have done this and highly recommend that you take the time to do this that day as well as register to vote.

9. The (expensive) gifts at the gift store

My aunt bought me an American flag mug with a bear and that mug and bear sits proudly on my bookcase shelf. I don’t know if she knew how much that gift meant to me but it’s something I will forever treasure. If you are attending a naturalisation ceremony, you don’t have to buy a gift but just being there in support of your loved ones will mean the world to them.

10. You will be an American

I will never not be a South African. That South African spirit entered me when I was born and it will never leave, I am just adding some American spirit to it. America is a great country and I feel likely to be a citizen but that does not make my love for South Africa any less strong and it does not fade or diminish the extraordinary memories I have of that beautiful country.

So wherever you may be in your immigration journey, I hope that you read this and know you have something extremely wonderful to look forward to and that you day will come where your fight will be validated and you will be an American citizen.