Personal Brexit

The process of becoming a US citizen started, for me, with the renewal of my “green card” after 10 years as a permanent resident.

The renewal is more of a replacement. Once again I had to pay a few hundred dollars, wait for a few months, then turn up to be photographed, fingerprinted, and my paperwork processed.

One of the problems with my first application for permanent residence is that when I’m under stress, my hands break out in eczema. This is enough to totally confuse the digital fingerprint scanners, which will insist that the screen and my fingers need to be cleaned repeatedly. Eventually the USCIS agent had to override the software and accept all the “bad” scans. With the renewal, getting the replacement card was a formality, so my hands had been scannable.

Still, once that was done I had to wait for a few more months for the replacement card. In the mean time, I couldn’t leave the country. For this service, I paid a few hundred dollars. It was all such an expensive nuisance that I decided I really didn’t want to go through it again, and given the cost I should have planned better and applied for citizenship before the old card expired. I made a mental note that I would definitely apply for citizenship before the new card expired around 2023.

There the issue sat — until the Trump hit the fan, and Britain found itself heading up Brexit creek with a distinct lack of canoe propulsion equipment. Early this year I suddenly realized that there was a real danger of the next US President deciding on a knee-jerk whim to shut down naturalization, or even to deport or otherwise restrict large numbers of resident aliens. I hurriedly set plans in motion.

Applying for citizenship begins with USCIS form N-400. Most of the questions on the form were straightforward, at least for me. I could confidently assert that I was not a war criminal, I was not a member of any paramilitary organizations, and had never been involved in genocide, even casually. Those things are still true, by the way — definitely no plans for genocide here.

Next, question 9 on the form asked:

Have you ever been a member of, involved in, or in any way associated with, any organization, association, fund, foundation, party, club, society, or similar group in the United States or in any other location in the world?

If you answer yes, you are instructed to provide a list of all clubs, organizations, parties or societies you have ever been a member of, along with dates of membership.

Obviously I think I know what they’re going for there. Just in case the other questions weren’t enough to catch out wily bad guys, they wanted to know about all the political organizations I had ever belonged to — in the broadest possible sense of the term “political”. I don’t think they actually cared about whether I was a childhood member of the Dennis the Menace Fan Club or The Tufty Club. Joining the Boy Scouts would have involved a pledge of allegiance to God and Queen, but I had decided that wasn’t for me, so I was safe there.

Still, as with my application for permanent residence, I decided it was better to tell them things they almost certainly didn’t need to know, so I listed my membership in Greenpeace and Amnesty International. I also confessed my ongoing membership of the ACLU. I felt like I ought to get bonus points for that, given that it’s an organization whose entire purpose is defending US constitutional rights.

I breezed through a bunch more questions, then I hit number 22:

Have you ever committed, assisted in committing, or attempted to commit, a crime or offense for which you were not arrested?

Again, I think I understand the underlying intent, but that’s an awfully wide net to cast.

Jaywalking is technically a crime. Not quite making it back to the parking meter before the time expires is technically a civil offense in Texas. You recorded a mix tape for your girlfriend in 1986? That’s a breach of copyright law. One lawyer wrote a book discussing his estimate that the average American commits three felonies a day, and you can find lists of examples you might have committed. Once you add in non-felonious crimes like walking a dog on a leash more than six feet long, are you sure you’ve never committed any offense for which you were not arrested?

For example, as I was researching obscure laws in order to write this, I learned that Texas law requires that you always use the parking brake when parking. Until just now, I had no idea that was a law, and yes, I’ve parked the Prius on flat ground by putting it in “Park” mode, without using the separate mechanical parking brake.

Anyhow, as I was filling out the form, I pondered the crime question for a while. Eventually I concluded that there was an implicit missing clause: What it’s really asking is whether you’ve ever committed a crime or offense significant enough to be relevant to USCIS. They’re not really asking about your overdue library books or whether you always use the parking brake.

Personally, I’ve never been stopped by police in the US. I was once stopped by UK police, but they just asked me what I was doing walking through town at 4am, and I told them, and that was the end of it. I’ve never received a parking ticket or had my car towed. I’ve attended protests, but they’ve always been peaceful ones. I’ve seen the inside of a US jail cell, but only because my sister-in-law is a police officer in Minnesota and showed us the facilities. So I honestly don’t think I’ve ever committed any crime which would give the USCIS pause, and I said so.

A potentially tricky part of the form is listing every time you’ve traveled outside the country for the last 5 years. I remembered having trouble with that when I originally applied for the green card, because they checked my application against the stamps in my passport. For obscure, uninteresting and innocent reasons they hadn’t obviously matched, and I’d had to explain.

This time, it was pretty easy, as I hadn’t traveled overseas as much, and now that it’s 2016 I could easily get the precise dates by checking Evernote and looking at EXIF timestamps on my photos.

I finished filling out the form and sent everything off back in April. I was a bit concerned about how long it might take to process — Texas has seen a massive Trump-fueled surge in naturalization applications. It turned out, though, to be much faster than the green card process. I was notified in May that my interview would be in June. I’ve already written about the day of the interview, so next up I’ll write about the naturalization ceremony itself.