Homeland Security and less pleasant things

Today was the day of my citizenship interview. The appointment was at the Department of Homeland Security US Citizenship and Immigration Services office in San Antonio, so I had taken the day off. I set out at 9am, and almost immediately encountered a dead armadillo on the road. I wondered if it was an omen. Turned out, maybe yes.

The journey to San Antonio is about 120km each way. It’s a long, boring drive down I-35, enlivened only by the antics of Texas drivers doing stupid shit like tailgating 18 wheelers and cutting in front of buses in their pickups.

I have major psychological issues around anything which structurally resembles a test or examination. It has been a problem my whole life. I almost passed out from psychosomatic chest pains during a math exam once. At the end of my first year at university, while everyone else was partying to celebrate the end of exams, I spent a week in bed sick from exhaustion. Decades later when I finally decided I had to learn to drive so we could move to Texas, I spent the evening before the test cycling around the streets outside the test center, memorizing their layout and noting any potential problems. In other words, my basic coping strategies are avoidance as much as possible, and ludicrous amounts of over-preparation otherwise. None of this convinces my stomach to obey, however, or stops my jaw from grinding.

So as I saw the sign for the immigration center building, my mind started racing. Then suddenly the truck in front, which had started to cross the intersection, decided he wasn’t going to make it in time, panicked, and performed an emergency stop. I hit the brakes, but not fast enough, and there was a soft crunching noise as I ran into him.

We both pulled over into the nearest parking lot. I got out of the car, and looked across the street at my destination with a sense of disbelief. So close… So very close. Still, my philosophy of car accidents is that any accident where nobody is hurt is a good accident. I knew this one was going to be my fault, so my main concern was getting on with my main mission.

Insurance details were exchanged, I tapped the details in on my phone, took some photos, and used the app to send everything off to GEICO. Then I drove to a nearby Starbucks to meet a friend who happens, fortuitously, to be an immigration attorney. I have to say, I wish I’d known Cate back when I was filling out my initial visa paperwork. Compared to that, the citizenship application forms are dead simple. Mostly she was there to help keep me distracted so my brain couldn’t run in its hamster wheel.

Part of my ludicrous overpreparedness involves being very early, so even after the unplanned car accident we had time to sit and check paperwork and chat before heading back to the immigration center for the 12:10 appointment.

I parked, then noticed a metal sign saying NO INS PARKING, promising that my car would be towed if I disobeyed. I drove around to the parking area on the other side of the building and parked there, and a man in a uniform approached and informed me that it was parking for employees only. I mentioned the sign in the other car park. He said that there was no INS any more, it was called USCIS now, so the sign didn’t count — they were old signs, and nobody had gotten around to removing them. So I drove around the block back to the previous parking space, got out, and re-met Cate at the entrance to the USCIS (definitely not INS please ignore the signs) building.

First stop, metal detectors. The security guard was friendly. Next stop, front desk to hand in paperwork and get a ticket. Then after a few minutes, we were called, and taken up to an office on the third floor. After the officer had checked my alien registration card, passport and paperwork, it was time for the dreaded test.

The first part of the test was to read aloud a sentence in English, chosen at random from a list of officially approved test sentences. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I aced this part.

Part two was the writing test. The sentence in part one had been a question, so for part two I was expected to write down the answer to the question. I’m not sure why this question-and-answer format is followed, because they tell you exactly what they want you to write as the answer. That being the case, you can probably guess that I didn’t have any problems with part two.

Now it was time for the hard part: the civics test. There are official flash cards and other study materials, and I had been given a booklet with the questions and answers when I filed the initial citizenship application. However, at that point I had already studied for a couple of months using Anki, a spaced-repetition flashcard program. It tracks which questions you find easy, which you find hard, and which you get wrong. It then schedules you to revisit those questions at the optimum interval to hammer the information into your brain as efficiently as possible. I had waited until I first scored 100% on all cards before filing my application.

Part of the memorization process had been learning the approved answers. For example, one of the questions is to name one thing Ben Franklin is famous for. Well, Ben Franklin is an interesting guy, and he’s famous for a lot of things — but if you decided to mention his flying a kite in a storm, or his invention of bifocal glasses, or his famous letter advocating the delights of older women as mistresses, you’d be marked wrong because those aren’t on the list of approved interesting facts about Ben Franklin.

You’re asked up to 10 questions, and you have to answer 6 correctly to pass the test. I don’t remember all the questions I was asked. One of them was to name three of the original 13 American colonies. That was easy enough, having lived in New England: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island — done.

So it went, and before long I was 6 for 6. After that, I was asked some questions I had already answered on the forms, to make sure that I was swearing under oath that I wasn’t a Communist, war criminal, participant in genocide, or tax deadbeat. I was asked to explain my understanding of what it meant to pledge allegiance to the United States, which I did.

Before long, it was all over. I don’t know how long it took, it was all a bit of a blur. I do know that at the end, I was informed that my application had been approved. The next step is that the records are independently checked for errors by a second USCIS staffer, and I’m sent an invitation to a citizenship ceremony where I get to pledge allegiance and collect a certificate. At that point, I will actually be an American.

As we left the office, my stomach started to untwist itself and nonchalantly ask why I hadn’t eaten much in the last 24 hours. Cate had places to go to and clients to see, so I returned to my car and started the journey home.

After a few minutes I discovered something unpleasant: the collision had knocked out the car’s air conditioning. Central Texas was a balmy 34 celsius in the shade, and the sun was blazing down. I cracked the windows open, put the vents on full, stopped to get an ice-cold drink in San Marcos, and got home sweaty, but not actually suffering from heatstroke. I’ll take the car in for repairs tomorrow.

So, an eventful day. Could have gone significantly better, but certainly could have gone a lot worse. And that’s hopefully the last test of any kind that I will ever need to take.