Citizens of Trump
As two dozen new Americans pledge their allegiance in Folsom, some express concern with the political climate
Niloufar Akhavan sat inside the crowded Folsom Public Library on Saturday morning waiting to raise her hand and say the words that would finally make her an American citizen. For the 21-year-old Iranian immigrant, a biology major at UC Davis, it was the end of a road paved before her birth.
Her father, who still runs a financial investment firm based in Iran, moved the family to El Dorado Hills six years ago in search of a “freer, happier life,” as Akhavan puts it. Akhavan’s dad first came to America during his college years and fell in love with the country, she says.
For Akhavan herself, it was a more gradual coupling. She arrived as a teenager with her older sister and parents, and started high school in El Dorado Hills, where she didn’t know anyone or much of the language.
“It was so hard,” Akhavan remembered. “I sat in the back of the class and didn’t know what was going on.”
Akhavan is the first in her family to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. She’s also among the first groups of immigrants to do so in the era of President Donald Trump, who has spent his first three months in office advancing a hard-line nationalist agenda bent on driving out unauthorized immigrants and making legal entry more difficult for refugees, visa-holders and people from majority Muslim nations, including Iran.
In other words, it’s a weird time to become an American.
Akhavan was one of 25 people to swear the oath of citizenship during the April 8 ceremony at the Folsom library. While the ceremony, full of symbolic pomp and optimistic rhetoric, reflected the realization of a dream for the college undergrad and two dozen others, it also begs certain uncomfortable questions.
Akhavan admits that she’s nervous about the president’s policies. Her ability to travel freely back to Iran to visit relatives—something her family had done every summer since it emigrated—was cast in doubt by Trump’s executive orders, which sparked retaliatory directives from the Iranian government.
“Actually, for [me and my family], it’s kind of scary,” Akhavan told SN&R. “What happens to us? What happens to our peers? What happens to our family back there if they want to come and visit? It’s a bit distressing, it really is.”
That ambivalence is making the rounds these days.
According to Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis Law School and an immigration expert, Akhavan’s concerns are shared by other prospective citizens on his campus. Johnson formerly served as a policy adviser on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He said his students, particularly those from China and Saudi Arabia, are worried.
“We have 35 to 40 students from China,” Johnson said. “President Trump has said some pretty negative things about the Chinese government, and they get the impression he’s not very sympathetic to China. That troubles some of the Chinese students—many of them are funded by the government to continue their studies in the United States. They’re uncertain about what all this means for their future.”
Johnson added that the Saudi students, while not directly impacted by Trump’s attempted travel bans, are concerned with the political climate in the United States.
“Most of them are Muslim,” Johnson said. “They’re feeling uncomfortable with his continued suggestions that Muslims may be terrorists, subject to extreme vetting and things like that.”
Before Trump’s election, the man who would be president called for “a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Upon assuming office, Trump tried to make good on that rhetoric, issuing two travel bans that the federal courts have blocked. The leader of the “land of the free, and the home of the brave”—so lauded in song at the citizenship ceremony by Sacramento area singer Preeti Prabhu—singled out Akhavan’s homeland in his “Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States” executive order.
Such extreme vetting for select groups complicates an already confusing immigration process.
According to Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the legal immigration process typically involves entry to the United States first through a H-1B work visa or a family-sponsored visa.
Congress caps the issuance of H-1B visas at 65,000 annually, a cap that was reached five months before the end of this fiscal year in September. Rummery said that was normal.
Once here, becoming a full-fledged citizen requires that the applicant be at least 18 years of age, have prior authorization to live and work in the United States through a green card for at least five years (30 months of which must be spent physically present in the country), have a working knowledge of English, pass a test on U.S. history and government, and be of “good moral character,” as determined by USCIS. The final requirement is that the prospective citizen take the oath of allegiance.
So far, it isn’t clear whether Trump’s policies have had an impact on those seeking citizenship. Immigration numbers for early 2017 won’t be available until midsummer.
But, according to data from the National Visa Center, Trump’s campaign rhetoric doesn’t seem to have significantly curbed the outside world’s attraction to America. As of November 1, 2016, nearly 2.5 million applications for family-sponsored visas were pending determination, while another 24,629 applicants waited to hear back about their requests for work visas. Figures from the same source show there were 76,084 more total visa applications at the same time in 2015, but the numbers tend to naturally fluctuate.
Meanwhile, the number of immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship appears to be growing.
Between October 1 and December 31, 2015, USCIS recorded 187,635 naturalization applications, a 13 percent bump compared to the same period a year earlier.
In Sacramento County alone, 1,851 new citizens were naturalized between October 1 and December 31 of last year.
According to Johnson, the trend will likely continue thanks, in part, to Trump’s increased immigration enforcement.
“In the past, what we’ve seen when there’ve been these kinds of concerns, we’ve seen more legal immigrants naturalize and try to become citizens,” Johnson said. “You can’t be deported if you’re a citizen who’s been lawfully naturalized. … It’s going to take some time to tell what’s going to happen, but in light of the concerns over immigration enforcement, we’re likely to see more legal immigrants try to naturalize and become citizens. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if we were to see an uptick in naturalization petitions over the next couple of years.”
The tenuous political climate is what spurred Gunnar Vestergaard to finally become a citizen.
“I wanted to become a U.S. citizen because of the political situation now,” Vestergaard said. “I just think we all need a voice, and I want to be able to vote in this country.”
A Danish immigrant and legal U.S. resident for 42 years, Vestergaard spent most of his life working as a cabinetmaker here for a Danish furniture manufacturer. At the Folsom library, he said he was driven to finally become a citizen largely in direct response to the last election cycle. Becoming a citizen, he said, will give him a chance to do something about the concerns he has for his newly official home.
“We don’t want to revert to 70 years ago,” he added, referring to the events that led to World War II. “We need to be careful.”
In the brightly lit library room, excited chatter cut the silence as members of Boy Scout Troop 1855 displayed the American flag. Sworn in as a group, the 25 new citizens picked up their individual certificates and posed for photos.
“I salute you all,” Folsom Vice Mayor Kerri Howell told the attendees. “We are a stronger nation through your inclusion and participation in our democracy.”
For Akhavan, who has family and friends back in Iran, the words cut deep.
Her family came to America searching for opportunities, but also for freedoms it couldn’t exercise back home, she said. Life in Iran was much more restrictive. For instance, religious enforcers would patrol the streets making sure women wore headscarves outside of their homes. She recalls having to always be on guard. One of the first things she recalls noticing in America, she said, was a palpable sense of ease.
“[I saw] how comfortable people were here,” Akhavan said. “How people could wear whatever they wanted, how they could [say] whatever they wanted. In Iran, it’s not like that. Everybody is constantly [watching] what they’re doing.”
Becoming an American citizen was always hard. It’s a long, complex process mired in bureaucracy and doubt. But the trajectory was in place. There was a path, a way, a hope.
“I think it’s sort of a mixed bag now,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to guess what the attitude will be a year from now because we’ll have more experience with President Trump’s immigration enforcement priorities. For now, there’s a great deal of uncertainty and concern among immigrants generally. … If you’re an immigrant or a temporary visitor … you’re going to be paying attention to what’s transpiring.”