Immigration Simulation Reveals a Broken System

Today I had an experience that every adult U.S. citizen should be made to undergo.

Gathered in a university cafeteria with a large group of students and community members, I was paired up with a young social work student and given a folder. It contained our names – Lucía and Juana Delgadillo – and information about us: I was Juana, a 16-year-old U.S. citizen trying to help my 20-year-old sister Juana, who had been brought by our parents to the U.S. at the age of four, get legal status. We then entered a Kafka-esque network of people representing various aspects of the US immigration system: immigration officials, attorneys, judges, translators, smugglers and con artists. Our goal was to obtain US citizenship within eighteen years (in the simulation, each year was represented by six minutes).

Beginning the simulation, I studied the background information on the characters we were playing. It suggested two options. The first was for my ¨sister¨ to apply for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). This would not lead to permanent residency or citizenship, but it would allow her to gain a renewable work permit (valid for two years) and social security number. The second was to wait until turning 21 to petition for her (with a form called I-130, Petition for Alien Relative), a process that would take at least eighteen years before getting permanent residency and an an additional five after that for getting citizenship. Thus, given that the simulation only represented eighteen years in total, there was no way for the two of us to win this game.

I started the simulation with a certain amount of optimism. Like Sarah in the cult classic Jim Henson film Labyrinth, I studied the maze before me and hoped for a Hollywood ending. ¨It can’t be that hard,¨ I thought. I immediately accompanied ¨Juana¨ to a nonprofit lawyer, who charged us a $30 to fill the documents out for us. We then got in line for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. After a wait in which at least one year passed, we were informed that we were missing documents – I needed Juana’s birth certificate – and sent off to get them. And thus began a wild journey of going from one office or agency to another, constantly receiving incomplete information, being attended to by overworked, disengaged officials, and constantly fearing a run-in with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

Eventually, my ¨sister¨ was indeed deported, and I was left feeling a deep sense of despair. ¨She hasn’t been to Guatemala since she was four,¨ I thought. ¨She doesn’t even speak Spanish…How will she survive?¨ Initially, I tried to petition for her, but the game was nearly finished, and in my desperation I ended up hiring a coyote to smuggle her back – an act that I later learned amounted to a felony.

Even though it was only a game, the sorrow and desperation I felt was real – which was, of course, the whole point of this activity. As the immigration debate rages in the U.S., we hear many voices condemning ¨illegals¨ and declaring ¨they should just get in line.¨ I am quite certain that the vast majority of Americans have no idea how the U.S. immigration system works, how long the process takes, how hard it is to navigate, and how tempting it is to give up (the student playing my sister said that if she’d been going through the process without me, she would have stopped playing after the first time her DACA request was denied)

My sense of bewilderment only increased when, upon finishing the game, those few of us who’d managed to pass the citizenship test were sworn in as U.S. citizens. I shuddered as I heard the oath they were made to take:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

A chill ran through me, as I’d actually never heard this oath spoken. ¨Renounce and abjure all allegiance to any foreign state?¨ Really? Does this mean that newly naturalized US citizens must give up all emotional ties to their country of origin? What if their families still live there? What does it mean to ¨bear true faith and allegiance¨ to the US? What does such a statement mean for me, a U.S. born citizen? What about my ethnic heritage? I felt vaguely queasy and briefly wondered if my anarchist friends -who declare governmental authority to be a lie we’ve bought into – might actually be right after all.

I seriously wish that every U.S. citizen I know – regardless of ideology, profession, socioeconomic status, or background – could engage in the simulation I was so fortunate to participate in today. If we all knew just how harsh, convoluted and dysfunctional our immigration system is, we’d have a different collective attitude, and most likely a different country.

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  • Julia Smucker

    My first thought while reading this was that your description of the whole document-chasing process sounded a lot like some of the calls I get as a telephonic interpreter. So that definitely rings true with my second-hand experience.

    My other thought was that the citizenship oath sounds almost religious. And I don’t understand how it allows for dual citizenship. I’ve heard of certain government jobs that would require one to renounce citizenship of another country if one has it, but that sounds like what the citizenship oath itself is doing.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    Two thoughts on reading this. First, did your simulation take into account the difficulties of getting documents processed by other governments? I ask this because during the 1970s my father was an honorary counsel of Mexico in northern Wisconsin. Though I think the position was intended to be a sinecure (obtained for him by an old friend when he retired), he grew increasingly busy, even though most of the Mexicans at that time lived in the southern part of the state, closer to Chicago, and there was a large Counsel General in Chicago. I was too young to know what was going on, but my older brothers have told me that my father grew very busy because he was honest and did not demand bribes, while the staff in Chicago were notoriously venal.

    Second, I was reading in the Guardian today that the government has now started arresting people who are trying to play by the rules:

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    Our oath of citizenship is quite baroque and the language dates from 1929 (with small modifications), so I suspect it is infused with xenophobia, and possibly the anti-Catholicism, of the time. It is worth comparing it to the the oaths required by other countries:

    Here, for example, is Germany’s, which along with Italy wins the prize for minimalism:

    I solemnly declare that I will respect and observe the Basic Law and the laws of the Federal Republic of Germany, and that I will refrain from any activity which might cause it harm.

    With regards to dual citizenship: despite the language, the oath does not require someone from renouncing their existing citizenship, as the US recognizes dual citizenship. Per a (now defunct) State Department web page

    it is recognized but not encouraged. From friends who have children with dual citizenship (they married foreign nationals) it appears that the US has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; indeed one friend reported that his son has more (potential) problems from his other citizenship about being a US citizen than vice-versa.

    On a family note: I have been told that one of my brothers, of draft age in the Vietnam war era, seriously considered exercising his right to claim Mexican citizenship (as the son of a Mexican national). This would have caused him to be drafted into the Mexican army, but he figured that spending two years in the deserts of Sonora or Chihuahua, or even the jungles of Yucatan, was better than spending two years in Vietnam getting shot at by the VC and NVA. However, he drew a relatively high number in the draft, and the plan came to naught.

  • dismasdolben

    “The foreign prince” of that oath was, indeed, the pope; THAT was what was intended. That oath is “Caesar”–that is, State–worship to almost the same degree as throwing incense on the altar to the reigning caesar was in the Roman Empire.

  • Julia Smucker

    I am once again inclined to agree with Dismas, and feeling conflicted on my view of people (especially fellow Christians, and perhaps most especially fellow Catholics) who have chosen to take such an oath.

    Recalling the context of anti-Catholic nativism does of course make some sense of the language. But I still can’t see how the clause “I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen” is logically reconcilable with maintaining dual citizenship. I suppose the only answer to that is that logically and legally are not the same.

  • Thales

    I’m actually a bit surprised that folks here are surprised at the US oath of allegiance. I guess I’m familiar with the oath of allegiance, having encountered it previously with friends who have naturalized as US citizens.

    I’m not a historian, but I have to disagree with dismas — I don’t believe that the Oath was intended to be specifically anti “Catholic prince of Rome”. Instead, it looks to me like that the “renounce and abjure” concept dates right back to the origin of the United States. Wikipedia suggests as much:

    Consider the history and genesis of the United States: the original Americans had to explicitly renounce allegiance to Britain and pledge allegiance to the U.S. At some point, the oath was changed from “renounce and abjure all allegiance to Britain” to “renounce and abjure all allegiance to any foreign prince.” Again, I’m no historian, but I’d wager that that change must have happened pretty early on in American history, as immigrants from other countries besides Britain started joining the new America. And I think that phrasing makes sense to me, from a perspective of the U.S.’s history and its own philosophy of existence as a renouncement of all previous sovereigns and a staking-out of a new claim to self-governance as set out in the Constitution. So I don’t see anti-Catholic nativism.

    This is related to another point: U.S. citizenship is, in my opinion, unique, because the origin of the U.S. is unique compared to most other countries. For most other countries, you are German, English, French, etc., generally based on your ethnicity or background — in other words, traditionally at least, citizenship was tied to ethnicity or culture of origin. In contrast, ethnicity or culture was irrelevant in becoming a U.S. citizen in the early years— instead, what mattered was renouncing your ties to another sovereign and pledging fidelity to the U.S. and its Constitution, and anyone with any ethnicity was welcome to do just that and thus become an American.

    I don’t know if any of you have encountered examples of naturalized immigrants from Europe from a few generations ago (such as Irish, Italians, Poles, Germans, etc. coming through Ellis Island and elsewhere), or naturalized immigrants of today (from China, or Somalia, or Mexico), who are so thrilled to be able to call themselves “American citizens” and who no longer consider themselves citizens of Italy or China or wherever. I myself have encountered such people. I get the sense that for these people, they aren’t denying or rejecting their ethnicity and Italian/Chinese/etc. heritage — but they have desired to start a new life in America for such a long time, and they may have endured great hardship in their previous country and in their travels to get to America and become a citizen—and so when they finally become a citizen, they embrace the notion that they are no longer “Italian” but they are rather “American,” and just as fully “American” as any other “American.” That experience, it seems to me, is unique when compared to other countries. If I moved to Italy and gained citizenship, would I be fully “Italian” even though I have no Italian blood? I’m not sure I would be fully Italian. But the reverse seems to be true for new Americans, it seems to me.

    So, in short, I don’t see any issues with the Oath — I don’t see that it requires denial of ethnic heritage (or of Catholic faith), but it does require a renouncing of allegiance to other countries, which makes sense to me considering the U.S.’s origin, history, and philosophy of existence as a nation.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Thales, I have known a fair number of naturalized citizens, mostly because I am an academic and lots of academic eventually decide to become citizens. (Not all: a good friend of my chose to retain his Honduran citizenship so that he could be active in Honduran politics.) As for their relationship with the US–well, I am going to argue that that is complicated. In some cases, yes, they drop their old citizenship and identify as “Americans”. In other cases, no. I remember visiting the Irish Club in Hartford on St. Patrick’s day for the annual Irish Football championship. The match opens with the singing of the national anthem, and all the Irishmen in the club leap to their feet and sing along, passionately. Here are the lyrics:

      Soldiers are we,
      whose lives are pledged to Ireland,
      Some have come
      from a land beyond the wave,
      Sworn to be free,
      no more our ancient sireland,
      Shall shelter the despot or the slave.
      Tonight we man the “bearna baoil”,[fn 4]
      In Erin’s cause, come woe or weal,
      ’Mid cannon’s roar and rifles’ peal,
      We’ll chant a soldier’s song

      Singing this seems to be a pretty political act, though it probably has all sorts of meanings, just as singing the American national anthem does. Nevertheless, watching and listening to them, and talking to my friend (who was native born but is now naturalized), I think a lot of them still see themselves as Irish Citizens who also happen to be (proudly) American Citizens.

  • Thales

    On the topic of dual citizenship, I think Julia is right: logically, dual citizenship doesn’t make sense for U.S. citizens (esp. those who are naturalized under the Oath). I’ve heard it described that the U.S. officially only recognizes its citizens to be citizens of the U.S., and not of other countries. Now other countries might consider a specific person to have citizenship with this other country in addition to U.S. citizenship, but the U.S. itself wouldn’t recognize that other citizenship. So in a sense, you could be a dual citizen if another country recognized you as a citizen, but from the perspective of the U.S., you are not a dual citizen as you are only a citizen of the U.S.

    Again, I think this U.S. perspective against dual citizenship makes sense considering the U.S.’s origin, history, and philosophy of existence as a nation. Consider, in contrast, a country like Israel, where its origin, history, and philosophy of existence as a nation is one that would be open to the possibility that an individual could have dual citizenship with Israel and with another country.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Thales, you are overlooking the fact that the US accepts the existence of dual citizenship. It would be, in principle, easy to abolish it, by making it a crime for a US citizen to hold a passport from another country. If I remember correctly, this is the case with Japan, though (again if I remember correctly), the government does not enforce this law, instead having a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” So dual citizenship is a reality that the government does not particularly like (see the webpage I linked to) but acknowledges as a reality.

  • Thales

    I just read through the comments again, and I wanted to register my disagreement with you re: the Oath being a product of xenophobia. Again, I’m no historian, but my suspicion is that the Oath is instead coming out of fact of the early Americans standing against Britain, as I’ve discussed in my other comments above.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Here I must press my case. I had forgotten about the history of the oath (if I ever knew it) but once Dismas brought it up I did a bit of googling. The language of “foreign prince” comes from British law: more precisely the Supremacy Act of 1588 where the language was deliberately intended against the pope.

      I think you are forgetting the very long history of British anti-Catholicism which was alive and well in the colonial period and shaped American prejudices for a very long time. Remember that the first two great waves of non “Anglo-Saxon” or “English” immigration were Germans and Irish, both of which brought large numbers of Catholics to America and triggered virulent xenophobia. It was an article of faith (if you will forgive the pun) that Catholics could not be good American citizens because they owed allegiance to a “foreign prince” (the pope). Therefore, they could not become citizens unless they renounced this allegiance.

  • Katherine

    The oath being discussed does certainly use language originally calculated to deny the authority of the pope. But the process of becoming a US citizen has a history, and we must be careful to not assume too quickly that what was true once has always been so.

    We have a few naturalization certificates from the later 19th century in my family. My Catholic ancestors renounced their allegiance to (it was fill in the blank, literally) Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm, in becoming American citizens.