Why did I decide to move to the U.S. and become an American citizen? Because I wanted to be free! I wanted to have children and a family in the freest republic in the world, the shining city on the hill.
I can still see my dad hunched over our huge short wave radio broadcasting Voice of America, a glimmer of hope in his eye that someday freedom would arrive in our home. He always gave me a wink as if to say, don't worry, we have a secret pact, we will succeed.
My move to the U.S. started three years before I ever set foot on the plane to New York - endless audiences to various vice ministers, police, secret police, passport office, translators, notaries, attorneys, and mayor's office. I had to prove that I had no debts, no criminal record, no communicable diseases, mental illness, associations to undesirable people and organizations; each document had to be translated into English in multiple copies, notarized, typed only by state-approved functionaries, approved and re-approved by the state, ministers, and security police. Few Americans give much thought to standing in endless lines or fighting daunting bureaucracy. That is because they are seldom faced with such possibilities in everyday life.
By the time I finished the entire process, I was exhausted, had no dime to my name, and had lost all my rights as a Romanian citizen. I was literally a person without a country, a persona-non-grata, with no rights whatsoever. I had a Romanian passport with a single visa to the U.S., but no home and no ability to make a living.
I had to pay back my schooling although the Romanian Constitution stated clearly that education was free to all Romanian citizens at all levels.
I was stripped of all rights simply because I petitioned for a visa to come study, work, and live in the U.S.A., land of the free, home of the brave. Americans have no appreciation for their citizenship by birth, at least not until they are in danger of losing it.
I was so elated to be free, I was ready to kiss the frozen ground when I landed in New York. I was so penniless, I could not even afford a soda or a phone call, but I was finally free!
Was it easy to become an American citizen? No, not really. After my arrival in 1978, I lived for two years as a resident alien. I could not vote and had no rights. The Romanians had rejected me but Americans (well, some of them) were embracing me. I did not march in the streets demanding same rights as American citizens because I understood I was NOT an American yet. I had to earn the rights, privileges, responsibilities, and the honor bestowed upon American citizens.
I did not wave the Romanian flag in the face of Americans while shouting angrily in the streets that America will someday be mine. I respected and saluted the American flag for giving me and millions of other immigrants freedom from oppression. I knew what totalitarian control was.
I learned English better each day. I had studied two years in high school, but it was not good enough. I had to learn idiomatic expressions. I did not demand that everything be translated into Romanian for me, or press 2 for Romanian. I paid to have my babies delivered in a hospital and did not expect free medical care or demand it.
I wanted to become part of the fabric of this society, to understand it, honor it, respect it, and immerse in its culture. I did not want to lose my heritage. I kept it alive at home, but I wanted to be an American. I taught my daughters both English and Romanian and, as they grew older, they appreciated the bilingualism, their Romanian roots but they were Americans first and foremost.
After two years of being a legal resident alien, I felt competent enough to apply for citizenship. I had to study the Constitution, take a test, pass it with flying colors, and be interrogated for three hours by an immigration officer in Memphis why I belonged to the young pioneers, the precursor to the Communist Party. In a communist society, indoctrination started in pre-school whether parents agreed to it or not. I had to speak English well, could not show up with a translator for the citizenship test or the swear-in ceremony as they do today for Spanish-speaking applicants.
I knew more about the U.S. history and Constitution than most Americans. I spoke better English than most Americans. I spelled English better than most Americans. I was truly prepared and deserving of being an American.
The paperwork was daunting, difficult to obtain, expensive to translate yet again, and the fees to the U.S. government were quite high. As a poor student, just driving three hours to Memphis several times a year was prohibitive. I had to decide sometimes whether I paid for documents and gas to the Immigration Office, or for food and shelter for my family.
It took two years and a half before I was approved and finally sworn in as Naturalized Citizen in the Court of Oxford, MS. It was a proud day for me and almost eight years in coming. My dad's spirit was with me and my mom and daughter were in the audience. I was no longer persona-non-grata, I had gained a country, a language, safe borders, and country resplendent with a tapestry of many nations, ethnicities, all united by a common language and goal, freedom. We were truly a melting pot, not a tossed salad bowl.
I don't take my citizenship lightly and I abhor the burning of our flag. I get tears of pride and joy when the National Anthem is played and the Pledge of Allegiance is recited.
I respect all legal immigrants just like me who are waiting their turn patiently, filling out forms after forms, waiting years sometimes to receive or be denied a visa to freedom. Vast oceans separate them from our borders. Does that make them less deserving of becoming legal residents of the U.S. because they are not able to jump a fence or swim across the Rio Grande?
Illegal aliens are law-brakers, they are not "undocumented citizens living in the shadows," or "new citizens," the euphemisms that liberals keep supplying to justify an illegal act that should be punished according to the law of the United States. We are defined by borders, language, and culture. If we don't defend our borders, we cease to be a nation, we become a lawless land.
May 20, 1982 was for me the day when the vast ocean that separated Europe from the United States no longer existed and I became a free American citizen by choice.