Last month I wrote about a citizenship ceremony I attended.  Each of the 700 people who became citizens that day has her own story.  Many came to the U.S. seeking refuge from persecution, war-torn homelands or poverty.  Others came to reunite with family members who had settled here.  Some came as skilled professionals bringing expertise valuable to business.

Whatever their reasons for immigrating, the road to citizenship is not an easy one, even for those whose lives in their home countries were relatively comfortable. 

Garrison Keillor put it well:

To give up your country is the hardest thing a person can do: to leave the old familiar places and ship out over the edge of the world to America and learn everything over again different than you learned as a child, learn the new language that you will never be so smart or funny in as in your true language. It takes years to start to feel semi-normal.

As a follow up to my post about the ceremony, I decided to interview my friend, Alicia, to learn more about her story and what becoming a U.S. citizen means to her.  It’s a human story more than a political one, about how life can take you in unexpected directions.  Here’s one person’s immigration story: 

Alicia lived in Veracruz, Mexico for 52 years before coming to Minnesota in June 2004 to help her adult daughter who lives here take care of her new baby.  She did not expect to stay.  She planned to return to Veracruz at the end of the summer to resume her job running a small business which designs, makes and sells costumes and dance outfits.  She was divorced but has siblings, her elderly mother and many close friends living in her hometown.

Things did not turn out as planned.  While still on a valid visa, she stayed on because her daughter needed her more than the business did at that point.  After some time, Alicia’s daughter encouraged her to get out and meet people and eventually Alicia met a Minnesotan named Tom. Tom seemed like a great guy and they had a good time together.  Knowing that Alicia’s visa would be expiring soon and afraid that without a commitment he would lose her, he proposed after they had dated a couple of months.  Several months later they married.  They traveled to Mexico, Alicia introduced Tom to her family and all seemed good.

As the wife of a U.S. citizen, Alicia obtained a conditional green card and was therefore authorized to work.  She got a job at a health care clinic and worked her way up from filing to becoming a certified coder (for which she had to take classes on medical terminology and the arcane area of insurance reimbursement codes).  Although her English is good, she continued to work on expanding her vocabulary, improving her pronunciation and making sense of our pesky prepositions.  In addition to mastering the new language, she had to adjust to a different way of life; she found Minnesotans cold and wondered whether she had done something to irritate people (in time of course she realized it was just that Scandinavian and German reserve).  It wasn’t easy to make new friends.

Unfortunately, the marriage with Tom did not last.  It was a painful period for Alicia. A green card based on marriage is conditional until the couple is married for two years.  Alicia and Tom divorced after a year and a half.  However, Alicia was able to prove that her marriage was genuine and she received an unconditional green card.  

After having been a permanent resident (i.e. green card holder) for five years, Alicia could apply for citizenship. In many ways her heart and soul are still in Mexico but life’s journey had taken her to Minnesota.   Her life and her home were here now.   Life here offered opportunities she had worked hard to make the most of.  She had a good job, had become a life coach, went to the yoga studio almost daily.  She had overcome obstacles –and came out the other end feeling like she had achieved something important.  Alicia described her feelings as pride, gratitude, joy and hope upon reaching this milestone.  

Felicidades y Happy 4th of July (un poco tarde)!