My 8-year-old daughter asked, “What does that mean, ‘We the people,’ Mom?”
I’d enlisted her to quiz me for my upcoming Civics test for naturalization as a United States citizen. This is the list of 100 questions from which you are asked 10 and have to answer at least six correctly. The third question on the list was, “The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?” Answer: We the people.
A year ago my husband, Johann, and I were inspired to apply for naturalization so we could fully participate in the life of the country we had grown to love and call “home” in the span of the 20 years we’d lived in the United States.
The incongruity of this process was that it ran concurrently to the 2016 election year. Regardless of your political affiliation, if you are American and were confused, enlightened, saddened, delighted, disgusted, mesmerized (perhaps all in the same day), by the goings-on, imagine what it was like for us as we prepared to prove to a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services officer that we were worthy of being American.
My family’s story of immigration is not filled with the trials and sacrifices typical of many immigrants. Pursuant to a dream, Johann came to the United States for graduate study in Electrical Engineering. His parents could afford to pay for his airfare and give him $5,000 towards tuition and expenses.
This amount sufficed to get through one semester, but grad school takes two years and he stretched those dollars by working at the university as a teaching assistant. Those years were not without hardship, but cannot be compared to those who come to America with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Subsequent to graduation, on an H1B visa, Johann worked for a technology company. This is a specialty visa given to those with theoretical and technical expertise.
As visa and then green card holders, we have paid taxes, served our community, and raised our children to be good stewards of the land in which they were born. We gave as we received. But we were not one of “we the people.”
Fast forward to the day of our naturalization interview. As we drove from Austin to San Antonio, I was bursting with the knowledge I had gained from studying the 100 questions.
I rifled through the sheaf of documentation we had been asked to bring.
“Where are the tax returns?” I asked.
We circled back home to get the five years of tax returns that somehow got left behind. We made it to the interview on time, sweating bullets. The interviewing USCIS officer came to get me first. That’s when it dawned on us that we were going to be interviewed separately, but had only one set of documents. I left luck to chance and let Johann take them.
For the next hour, I was interviewed in a windowless office. I attempted friendly conversation with the officer.
“This must be an interesting place to work,” I said.
“It’s a job” he replied, glibly. He went through my application, denoting it in red pen. He administered the test to ascertain my proficiency in English. Then the part I’d been waiting for - the Civics questions. He started with one of my favorites, Number 13: What is the rule of law? Answer: Everyone must follow the law; leaders must obey the law; government must obey the law; no one is above the law.
After the sixth question, the officer terminated the interview.
“But I was only just getting into it!” I protested.
“Yeah, but you passed them all. Your application for naturalization has been approved,” he said. If he was excited to make this auspicious pronouncement, he certainly didn’t show it.
I returned to the lobby and for the next hour watched a news report on a presidential candidate’s assertion that the election was “rigged.” Then Johann appeared.
“How did it go?” I asked.
“Great!’ he said. “He asked to see our last tax return, so thanks for letting me keep them.”
We grinned, more out of relief at having made it through the morning than anything. We were a step closer to being “we the people.”
Within a few weeks we came to the realization that were unable to vote in the November 2016 election after all. In order to vote, you have to be a citizen on the day you register to vote. The deadline to register in Texas was October 11th, and our naturalization ceremony was the week after. The office of the Texas Secretary of State gently reminded us of Question Number 13. On November 8th, despite being fully-fledged U.S. citizens, we were not among the people who voted.
Three months later, on January 21st, 2017, I got to exercise my first amendment rights, along with 50,000 or so other people assembled at the Women’s March on Austin. I was awestruck to see a sea of humans, young and old, gathered in tranquil solidarity.
I overheard and admired one mother explaining to her daughter that some of the words on the placards were not used in everyday vernacular but today for empowerment; that you can sometimes use strong language to express your anger, but be well-behaved at the same time. The little girl nodded, thoughtfully. It was like she knew she was part of something hugely significant.
A group of women in their 70s and 80s approached my friends and I, all in our 30s and 40s.
“Thank you for marching, young people!” they said. They held a sign with the words: “This is so 50 years ago.” I held back my tears. It was from that moment on that I could share with my own daughter the meaning of “we the people.”
In the days after the Women’s March, the topic of voter fraud still raged. But I no longer despaired. For I had seen the people, and been with the people of whom I am now a part. And it is my feeling that we, the people, have only just begun.