I emigrated from Scotland to America as a Green Card holder in October 2013. My husband has been a dual US/UK national since his birth and our children became dual nationals when they became resident in America, made official by them obtaining US passports in October 2015. I, therefore, have been the only alien in the Pict family for quite some time now.
My original plan had been, for many and varied reasons, to wait to apply for citizenship until closer to the time when my 10 year Green Card would expire. However, the 2016 presidential election was tough on my psyche and it didn’t get any easier to live in this country without having the ability to vote in 2017. I have always exercised my right to vote so being entirely disenfranchised and unable to participate in the democratic process was really challenging. That, therefore, became the primary reason why I decided to bring forward my timeline for becoming an American citizen.
The immigration process was complex and expensive. The naturalization process was not quite as challenging and not quite as expensive but it still involved a whole load of tricky bureaucracy and a massive chunk of money. It also involved a large investment of time and a fair dollop of stress.
The first stage was to submit my application, which was time consuming and sometimes had me raking through the dusty, musty corners of my memory banks, but nowhere near as complex as the immigration application had been. This was then sent off to Chicago to be picked over and start the ball rolling. However, no sooner had my application arrived in Chicago (I was tracking it) than I received a letter informing me that I was to report to a USCIS field office to have my biometrics taken. No problem except that I had just one day’s notice between receiving the appointment card and the date of the appointment. One day. I flew into instant panic. My husband was working in New York so I had to organise childcare backup for if I had any sort of delay outside school hours – however unlikely – and I had to scramble to find someone to take my place at work. That fits neatly into a single sentence but it involved a whole lot of stress.
On the day of my appointment, I dropped off my youngest kids at school and drove off into northern Philly. Thank goodness for Google maps because I had zero clue where I was going. I did, however, meet almost every red light and had to stop at a rail crossing while an exceedingly lengthy cargo train rumbled past so I arrived at the USCIS field office with a mere five minutes to spare. When I walked into the building, it was like a wasteland. There was one other client visible and then everyone else was an employee. The whole appointment, therefore, went smoothly and rapidly and ultimately felt like a giant waste of my time. I had already had biometrics taken (eye scans and fingerprints) when I emigrated and I have had my fingerprints taking subsequently for volunteering and employment purposes. The appointment, therefore, felt like replication. The staff were friendly and courteous and worked efficiently so in no time at all I had been processed and sent on my way with a study guide for the tests.
And then I waited.
It is unbearably stressful to be in any sort of limbo situation. We had been through this before with the Immigration process. While we had to move forward with our lives as if we were relocating to America, the fact that at any stage either the immigration process might have had a hiccup or the employment prospects for my husband have fallen through, we would have had to abandon the whole plan and root ourselves back into our lives in Scotland. However, that always felt as if it had forward momentum. The Naturalization process felt like suffocating in stasis.
After the Biometrics appointment, I had zero contact from USCIS for months. In many ways, that was a positive sign. They did not need to request further information from me which meant my application was sound and, of course, they would have contacted me had they decided to outright reject my application. However, to receive no correspondence for months, no update, no indication that progress was happening, however slowly, was painful. It was also stressful because I could not commit to anything and had to opt out of certain plans because I had no idea when I might be called for Interview (and then the oath taking) but I was pretty sure it would be at short notice when it did happen. Granted I am prone to stress and anxiety but it really was a pretty intense period of waiting.
I started to log into my USCIS online account at least once a week to see if there were any updates on my case. In doing so, I discovered that I could monitor the progress of the Philadelphia field office through all the N-400 applications they were handling. Whereas it used to take a few months from submitting an application to being called for interview, they were estimating at least a year. I heard from other sources that this backlog is happening all over the US due to understaffed USCIS offices having to handle a massive increase in applications prompted by the political climate. While not altogether surprising, therefore, it was a bit deflating. It was estimated that I would be called for interview in the Autumn of 2018 which was not just a long time away but would also prevent me from registering to vote in time for the midterm elections. I continued to obsessively check my USCIS account and track the field office and there was never any change. My husband and I decided, therefore, that it was probably safe to plan out a summer vacation. Nothing elaborate, nothing involving crossing an international border, and mostly things that could be cancelled with a full refund at 24 hours notice, just in case.
So obviously – because Murphy’s Law – a mere two days after the refund deadline had passed for the one vacation commitment that didn’t have a generous cancellation policy, I logged into my USCIS account and learned that I was being called for interview. Of course, no date or time was provided with the electronic notice. Nope. It was just a notification that I would be receiving a notification by mail. You know what a stress-head I am so you can probably well imagine the panic I had on seeing that notice and the anxiety I experienced waiting for the paper notification. I found I was actually hoping for the same extremely short notice I had received for the Biometrics appointment because then it would be before my vacation. I learned that the notice for an interview is usually between 2 and 4 weeks, parameters that were definitely going to scupper our travel plans. Anxiety was developing into panic and attempts at problem-solving all the possibilities. Could we delay our departure? Could we return home early? Could I fly back to Philly from random road trip location A and get a flight to random road trip location B? After over a week of intense waiting for the letter to arrive, it was good news: my scheduled interview date permitted us to go ahead with our travel plans and I even had a day to spare. Phew.
A few days after returning from our road trip, therefore, I entered the USCIS office in Philadelphia for my interview. I went through security and got checked in about 20 minutes before my scheduled interview time but I had no sooner sat down – not even enough time to open my book – when my name was called. The officer who interviewed me was friendly and jolly which immediately put me at ease. After a little bit of introductory admin – such as checking my IDs and Green Card – I was launched straight into the tests. There are 100 possible questions on American civics, history, and geography from which the interviewing officer will ask 10. The first time I took the test of the full 100 questions, I got 96 correct. After studying and really concentrating on dates and numbers (those being my weakness when it comes to memorisation) I was regularly getting 100% but you know how neurotic I am. Those four wrong answers from the first run through niggled at me. I was making anxiety mountains out of molehills. I got 100% on the test. I obviously had zero concerns about the English reading and writing tests and passed those. I was then asked a series of questions that were really just a means of ensuring that my oral answers were consistent with those given on my submitted paperwork. A few more bits of admin and that was it. Interview over. I was approved. The letter had told me to allow for two hours. I was done in 30 minutes. I guess they decided that a marriage of 22 years with 4 kids probably meant this was not some sort of sham Green Card marriage and that no intense interrogation was required.
Now there was just one final step.
It took about three weeks to receive the date and time of my Naturalization Oath Ceremony in the mail and, when it arrived, it gave me under a week’s notice. USCIS really does like to keep us on our toes. Luckily I don’t work during the summer months and my in-laws had coincidentally flown in two days earlier to they could babysit the children. I had swithered about having the boys attend the ceremony but I could not obtain information about provision for guests or how long the ceremony was likely to be so we decided – given the grandparents were around – to leave them at home. My husband had no choice but to take some time off work to accompany me not just because I wanted someone there at the ceremony for me but also because I could not drive myself, having just had general anaesthesia for oral surgery. Yeah, the timing of this ceremony was not particularly great given the state of my mouth and the level of discomfort I was in but I was not about to postpone it.
My ceremony was scheduled for 9am on Friday morning. There were 56 other people taking the oath of allegiance with me during the ceremony and we represented 31 different countries. I was the only one from the UK. They kept us all very organised and had us process through various administrative processes according to the rows we were seated in. I was the sixth person into the room and was, therefore, in the front row. The chap who was “compering” the ceremony was very genial and warm and helped put us all at ease. I had this weird, illogical anxiety that something might go wrong at the last moment. A contributing factor was the fact I was still very woozy from the after effects of the anesthesia and strong painkillers which led me to make an error on one of my forms, thankfully not a critical error but one that left me with a malingering feeling of paranoia. I had to return my Green Card as part of the Naturalization admin. It felt weird to be giving away something that has been so important these past few years and something which was quite a bit of an ordeal to acquire. There were some videos to watch and then we all stood for the oath taking part, which was led by another USCIS official. At that point, at approximately 10am, I became an American citizen. I was given my Certificate of Citizenship and all the formalities were over.
By 10.30am, I had registered to vote. I will have to change my status with the Social Security department and then I will have to apply for a US passport so I still have some bureaucracy to plough through. However, the big milestone is now done and dusted. I am now Citizen Pict.