While the U.S. Congress is embroiled in a heated debate to find an acceptable compromise on decades-long, elusive comprehensive immigration reform, ordinary Americans wonder: Just what does it take for an alien immigrant to attain citizenship?
On April 11, 59 immigrants from 38 countries took the solemn oath of allegiance to the flag of United States before a judge of the federal court of the Western District of Missouri. I was among the newly inaugurated American citizens.
On this chilly Thursday morning, close to 300 immigrants converged on 9th Street, the Court’s premises, anxiously waiting to witness the initiation rituals of their relatives.
Parking spaces were gone by 8:00. Young, middle-aged and the elderly were already lining up at the security desk, ready to assemble in a large hall where the process was to begin.
Initially, I thought that citizenship was a contract only between the applicant and the immigration authorities. I had a lonely feeling during the six years since I filed my first paperwork to start the long journey to coveted citizenship.
I was taken aback to see applicants accompanied by family members and their children! Being a first-generation immigrant to the U.S., I did not have a family member to accompany me. So I sat forlornly, occasionally speaking with some Southern Sudanese immigrants who were also waiting for the big occasion.
What is required for an alien to become a U.S. citizen?
You must pass U.S. history exam, and read and write in English. You must be a person of high moral high standards, have no criminal history, pay taxes, and be willing to carry arms to defend the sovereignty of the United States.
The majority of those who received their citizenship are refugees, and those who sought political asylum after fleeing persecution in their mother countries. They were required to have been in the U.S. for the past five years, after they became lawful permanent residents.
But a few in my group got their citizenship through marriage.
Of the 59 new citizens, one lady from Germany was so excited that she rubbed the U.S. flag around her chest, took pictures and loudly declared, “I have never been happy in my life like today.”
Throwing her hands up and occasionally kneeling down, she hugged her companion and declared she could not forget this day.
Her reaction confounded me. Germany is not known to be a country of poverty or notorious political persecutions. What is it that made this lady so excited? Well, I did not ask her because I too had my own excitement to deal with.
I arrived in America in 2006 on an international press fellowship program. After my fellowship ended at The Kansas City Star, I was unable to go back to Kenya because I was targeted for extrajudicial lynching by state agents due to my uncompromising stance against corruption and abuse of human rights.
It therefore became necessary for me to seek political asylum, which was granted in early 2007.
Becoming a U.S. citizen is a very prestigious achievement. I remember when I travelled to East Africa before I received my green card. I was not allowed to fly through any European airspace without a transit visa.
I arrived in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, with my State Department-issued special travel document. However, I was asked to either produce my permanent resident card, which had not yet been issued to me, or a U.S. passport to fly through Europe.
But my flight was scheduled enter German space. At the time, I had sneaked back into Kenya through a neighboring country in order to deal with pressing domestic matters.
My younger sister had gone through a very delicate brain surgery and was in very bad shape. I cried when I saw her. My mom was bedridden with an injured nerve. I felt constantly under intense pressure at the University of Missouri-Columbia where I was a visiting scholar.
In the summer of 2006, I appeared before a quasi-judicial human rights tribunal in Nairobi where I gave incriminating evidence against top government officials on extrajudicial executions, including my own torture and incarceration two years before.
Unknown to me was the fact that the same officers had not forgiven me. They were insidiously plotting to eliminate me when they heard I was back. Nevertheless, they needed clearance from their provincial bosses before they could execute their evil scheme.
As they had done before, they came up with fabricated allegations against me — that I had brought millions of dollars from the U.S. to destabilize the government of Kenya. Eliminating me was necessary for national security.
I lived constantly haunted by dreams of being bludgeoned to death by police officers. At night, I never slept. I slept during the day so that I was able to keep vigil after dark.
I decided to call the Provincial Commissioner, the equivalent of a state governor, to discuss my security concerns. He agreed to meet with me.
While in his office, the PC informed me that he had a very serious briefing in his office from the Kisii district security committee. It claimed that I was implicated in high crimes of anti-government activities, and that I had brought millions of dollars into the country for that purpose.
I saw darkness in the room. The PC went on to inform me that his officers were on my trail and that I could be eliminated any time.
“I have done my investigations and established that these allegations against you are false,” he said. “However, there seem to be political schemes that I am unable to stop from doing whatever they want, and I should urge you to get out of the area for your own good.”
Immediately, I took a vehicle and crossed over into a neighboring country, then took the next flight to New York and the country that is now my home.