10/30/2014 03:56 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Citizenship Day

Citizenship Day is full of long, sometimes awkward checkpoints, but an undeniably awkward moment has to be the last one. After a legal permanent resident has received help from various legal professionals, I, a volunteer, ask her to write on a small whiteboard her reason for applying for citizenship. And then I take a picture as if she, holding the small whiteboard in front of her, were having her mug shot taken. The criminal imagery isn't entirely inappropriate, since many of the other awkward moments involved applicants getting asked about their criminal records. A candid applicant saves time and money, a $680 fee, but she may also find out that certain minor crimes will stand in her way and even get her deported. But by and large the applicants I encountered on October 18 at Big Bend Community College (in Washington State) had nothing to be ashamed of. It was I who was ashamed, because when the day began I knew so little about the process of becoming a citizen, and I knew so little about the motivations of the people who were applying for it.

I would've been happy to ask applicants for their motivations without my taking a picture of anybody holding a whiteboard. But very few applicants spoke English, so there was some practical value in taking a picture and then having the message translated by a colleague. One of the few applicants who spoke English fluently, a Chinese-American woman who has lived in the US for 44 years and who has an American husband and daughter, had understandably mixed feelings about becoming a citizen. To make things official at this point, she pointed out, is to call into question the authenticity of her American identity as it has existed until now.

Latino applicants, who comprised 95 percent of the applicants, had more at stake. Most of them were in middle or old age, and most of them wrote something on the whiteboard about the right to vote. Nobody mentioned any particular political issue when I asked for one. It was the right -- or, as one man humbly put it, the privilege -- that was important. The lack of any single urgent political cause was ultimately heartening. Citizenship in these people's eyes changes personal identity at the deepest level. And it has its practical perks. What citizenship actually gets you, in addition to the right to vote, is the right to bring family members into the country, and it gets you the right to freely leave the country and reenter it. A legal permanent resident has, at best, a hard time reentering.

A legal permanent resident -- that is, someone with a green card -- has to wait five years before she can apply for citizenship. The paperwork involved in the application is extensive, as the attorneys, paralegals and interpreters at Citizenship Day will tell you. And the application is rather invasive. Pointed questions about marital history and encounters with violence sit side-by-side in the 21-page document, and one's failure to account for so much as an unpaid speeding ticket could trigger suspicion from USCIS, which has been housed under the Department of Homeland Security since 9/11. The final hoop is the naturalization test. There are one hundred possible questions and an applicant gets asked ten of them, seven of which have to be answered correctly. The knowledgeable, energetic and bilingual staff at the Seattle-based immigrant rights organization OneAmerica, which runs Citizenship Day in partnership with Washington State, does a great deal for applicants, but the staff doesn't have to teach them political values. US-born citizens like me are used to thinking of immigrants as hungry for the opportunity to make the bottom line. In light of events like Citizenship Day I think we've overlooked our immigrants' idealism. Their self-interest is inseparable from, as one applicant put it on the whiteboard, the desire "to be accounted for."