What it’s like to vote for the first time as a new

As I waited to be called for my American citizenship interview, live footage of Donald Trump’s impeachment hearing was playing on the TV. I could barely register the irony, feverishly re-reviewing the flashcards I’d made of the 100 civics questions I was told to memorize.

My appointment was for 6:45 a.m., but I was waiting in line outside an imposing government building by 5 a.m., an hour before it even opened. Alongside me stood many fellow immigrants who knew that when it came to the U.S. government, you needed to show up a day early and with more than a dollar to spare if you had any hope of earning its approval.

Fingertips white, I clutched the massive binder containing my every tax return since 2015, a 60-page citizenship application, original Brazilian birth certificate, both my Swiss and Brazilian passports (my mother is Brazilian and my father is Swiss), and American green card tightly to my chest, like it was a shield against whatever came next. I was reminded of my mom every time we traveled when I was a kid, lugging hefty binders for our whole family. I never forgot the look of panic etched on her face as she repeated answers to customs officers, almost always visibly annoyed by her thick accent. 

The rage I’d been bottling suddenly exploded at the thought of that big, dumb orange elephant in the room.

Before I knew it, my name was called. I was given an oral and written exam. I passed. In a daze I walked out, letting it sink in that now only an oath ceremony stood between me and this American citizenship 25 years in the making.

As I left, I gave a backward glance at the TV broadcasting the circus that encapsulated all the dysfunction of this nation I was so anxious to join. The rage I’d been bottling suddenly exploded at the thought of that big, dumb orange elephant in the room who made being born outside the U.S. feel like a crime, all while being accused of committing crimes against American democracy in broad daylight.

Before starting the citizenship process, I was advised to delete all social media posts criticizing the American government, and even to avoid texting or talking about it near my phone. For a full year, I held my tongue, in spite of the daily onslaught of maddening news, despite being an opinionated loudmouth only fit for a career writing about them.

So, feeling patriotic, I celebrated in the most Trumpian way possible: I tweeted. 

After a year of voicelessness, after a whole lifetime of political powerlessness, I would finally be able to cast my first vote ever on Super Tuesday, in one of the most important elections of this country’s recent history.

Over the past year whenever I told people I was finally applying to become an American citizen after living the majority of my life here as a permanent resident, there was usually this question of, “Why? Why would you want to become one of us now?” 

Fair point.

Mere weeks after Trump took office, his administration launched an attack on immigrants that surpassed even the worst expectations. People from Muslim countries who had every legal right to be here, who had won the lottery of getting a visa or green card approved, who often had family waiting for them on the other side of the airport gates, some of whom had lived here their whole lives just like me — were, without warning or reason, now forbidden from entering. 

In those early days (and still now), it felt impossible to know exactly how bad Trump’s attack on immigration could get. Sure, eventually Trump exempted those with visas and green cards from his travel ban. But in an instant, we watched those precious papers we cling to made ineffectual by the whims of a few powerful Islamophobes. It was only their first act. After that, anything felt possible. 

TWO CAN TWEET IN ALL CAPS, BUDDY!!!!!!!!

TWO CAN TWEET IN ALL CAPS, BUDDY!!!!!!!!

Image: BOB AL-GREENE / MASHABLE

To be clear, I am part of a uniquely privileged class of immigrants. 

Though I am Brazilian (I’m a triple citizen now), my Swiss father gave me the white skin and European passport that protects from the worst of xenophobia and discrimination. I live in Los Angeles, a sanctuary city, and one of the most immigrant-friendly places in the country. I speak English fluently (much better than my mother tongue, at this point). I was a permanent resident, the most secure legal status and pathway to citizenship. I could afford a lawyer to prepare me for every labyrinthian step of the year-long application process (much shorter than many other waiting periods). I come from a family of wealthy taxpayers, not considered a financial “burden” by those deciding which “kinds” of people deserve to be American.

The discrimination I experience pales in comparison to the far more vulnerable migrants, refugees, and undocumented people whose lives are in even greater danger under Trump. But it’s telling that every immigrant, even the most privileged, knows the daily indignities of being reduced to an alien number shoved through the hellish bureaucracy of the American system. 

Whether it’s travel or the DMV, everything comes with the added complications, anxieties, and stressors of accounting for every minutia of immigration law — and inevitably still messing up. My mother instilled the fear of God in me with border and customs officers, who I grew up believing could send me back or put me in jail for no reason. And they kind of could, I learned, when once on my way back from visiting family in Brazil I was detained for hours by Texas immigration officials for not knowing what a stamp on my passport meant (the stamp was, in fact, simply proof of my permanent residency).

After turning 18, election days began to feel like parties my friends attended that I’d never get invited to. It sounds silly, but I envied their “I Voted” stickers and Instagram posts. I daydreamed about filling out a ballot which, for a brief moment, rendered the American government the one that needed to earn my approval rather than the other way around.

Before Trump, I resisted the idea of citizenship. My reasons ranged from the practical (was I even allowed to be a tri-citizen?) to the precious (could I stomach sacrificing even more of my Brazilian identity at the altar of American assimilation?).

In short I was an idiot, deluded into a false sense of security by my privilege.

Do I denounce the place that bore me, to swear fealty to a country hostile to my existence?

But the swift, seemingly unstoppable inhumanity of Trump’s war on immigrants left those of us with the privilege to choose with an unanswerable existential question: Do I denounce the place that bore me, to swear fealty to a country hostile to my existence? Or do I just learn to live with the fear of perhaps suddenly being exiled from the place I took root in?

I wish my reasons for finally becoming an American were loftier. I wish I could tell you it was out of a sense of indignity or protest, a fuck you to those who believed people like me don’t deserve to be here. But I was just scared. In truth, most American immigration stories are driven by fear and the need for security.

I showed up to my oath ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, a full 25 hours too early. I was so nervous, so anxious to finalize this thing before someone could tell me I was actually being punk’d and none of it was real, that I had accidentally shown up an entire day too soon. 

So I did it all again the next day, still clutching that binder containing the entirety of my life to my chest, though officials had told us we only needed to bring the one document summoning us to the ceremony.

When an official prompted me for said document, I confidently opened the enormous binder that was my life. But as envelope after envelope I opened revealed the wrong document, a familiar sensation of world-tilting, paralyzing panic started to take hold. Fingertips going numb, I ripped out every paper, assuring him through tears that I knew it was there, it had been there just yesterday. 

I ran back to my car, praying it slipped out during yesterday’s accidental trial run. But as my window to make the ceremony in time shrunk, my vision grew dark in the corners. I collapsed onto the parking garage floor, using what little breath I could gasp to mutter to myself about what an idiot I was, how I blew it, that someone else deserved this more than me if I couldn’t even do the one thing they asked me to do.

Coming to, resigned, I once again checked that godforsaken binder that reduced my life to mere pounds of papers proving my worth to America. Miraculously, I found a single unopened envelop stuck between two dividers.

Brushing the dirt off the dress I’d chosen for its shade of democratic blue, I ran back with it in hand. Huffing, puffing, face streaked with sweat and tears, the official let me in with eyebrows only slightly raised.

We had become accustomed to enduring him in silence.

The House of Representatives passed the articles of impeachment the night before my oath ceremony, rendering Donald Trump the third president in American history to ever earn the dishonor. Yet there he was in the pre-recorded tape they play for all new citizens, “congratulating” us in a way I can only describe as threatening, with instructions to assimilate to the way of life in America. 

Me and the hundreds of other immigrants gathered — a majority of Mexican origin, but representing every corner of the globe, all dressed in our Sunday best, some (me) openly weeping while others simply smiled quietly to themselves — watched his looming image on the screen above us. We had grown accustomed to enduring him in silence. 

The little flags they’d given us, which only moments before we’d waved in the air with muted patriotic pride after being declared Americans for the first time, fell limp at my side. I clutched my citizenship certificate, thinking about how odd it was that a thing could feel so concrete in your hands one moment, then so flimsy in the next.  

When volunteers came around to pass out voter registration packets, we all lent our neighbors the pens we could scrounge from within our bags, answering each other’s questions as best we could through litanies of language barriers. 

It was then that I realized I wasn’t just crying from the sheer relief of never having another panic attack over my immigration status ever again. I was crying because, for the first time in my life — surrounded by hundreds of strangers who shared none of my culture, language, or upbringing, yet all the understanding — I finally knew what it felt like to belong.

Say hello to your new TRIPLE CITIZEN! Surreal to have my oath ceremony the day after impeachment. In Donald Trump’s pre-recorded video, he told us to assimilate in the same breath that he called it “Amera” repeatedly. FURIOUSLY FILLED OUT MY VOTER REGISTRATION LMFAO 🇧🇷🇨🇭🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/P57y9HMbTh

— Jess Joho 🦁 (@jessjoho) December 19, 2019

After all was said and done, I was showered in congratulations by friends, family, and coworkers, usually followed by the same kind of joke: “Welcome to the garbage fire!”

What these natural-born citizens shitting on their own country with no fear of repercussions didn’t understand was that I hadn’t joined the garbage fire. I’d joined them, all the people who voted with those who couldn’t vote in mind, the people who came out in droves to protest the Muslim travel ban in airports across the country, the people who knew an immigrants worth to America is far greater than anything that fits in a binder, the people who were my home in more ways than any single country could ever be.

On the day I passed my citizenship interview, my partner surprised me with flowers and a patriotic card. On the day of my oath ceremony, my editor (hi Brittany) sent me a beautiful plant and note I keep displayed proudly in my apartment. My friend and coworker Ali Foreman threw me a surprise party, banding everyone together to provide me with the pinnacles of the American experience (mini corn dogs, Big Macs, fried chicken, bud lights — each more gloriously garbage than the last). 

Ahead of Super Tuesday, I insisted on filling out the ballot I’d daydreamed about in person. It was the most anti-climactic experience ever, and that’s exactly as it should be.

I went in expecting the horror stories of hellish voting places with long lines, endless red tape, and disqualifying rules and regulations. Indeed, it still is like that elsewhere. Voter suppression is real.

But just this year, Los Angeles implemented a massive upgrade to its voting system to make it more accessible to everyone by extending the voting period from one day to 11, adding more voting centers, and equipping each with rows of modernized machines that accept QR codes generated by online sample ballots you can fill out ahead of time. 

Yet despite the act of voting being unexpectedly easy, I was struck by how much more the “civic duty” part of it outweighed any sense of it as a right. 

Voting was not the power trip I had imagined. It’s lots of online research into bureaucratic processes and committees I never knew existed. But at least this time I was learning bureaucracy to exercise my rights properly, rather than to protect myself against a total lack of rights.

And hey, I finally got my sticker.

But despite all my privileges, despite my luck throughout this process, even the happiest American immigrant stories are plagued by a perpetually uncertain sense of place. I find that, even with the comforting weight of my brand new American passport in my hand, I can’t rid myself of what I termed “immigrant brain.”

Even the happiest American immigrant stories are plagued by a perpetually uncertain sense of place.

I still showed up four hours early for my first flight to Brazil as an American, bringing all three passports out of some vague fear that the new one would disappear before my eyes. On the way back, I exalted at finally getting to re-enter the country through the speedier line for citizens. But a familiar feeling of panic rose in my throat when the machine deemed my passport expired. Already on the verge of tears, I pleaded with the attendant to believe me that this was impossible, I’d only just become a citizen, I — but before I could continue she cut me off and said my passport was too new, so I’d have to do the long line anyway. 

When the customs officer did little more than glance at my picture for half a second before telling me to go, I hesitated. No fingerprints? No looking at the camera to take my picture? No questions about what I was doing, why I was here? 

“That’s it?” I asked. “And welcome home?” she answered, tired and dismissive.

I don’t think the anxiety ever truly goes away. Last week, news hit that Trump’s justice department had opened a denaturalization office tasked with revoking the citizenship of immigrants they deemed no longer worthy of being American.

As immigrants, there will forever be an asterisk next to our sense of belonging. Our American rights are conditional on the whims of an institution that insists upon our devaluation of its greatness.

I will probably never feel wholly safe in America. But I’ll keep voting for the people who can’t until they kick me out.

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