On Belonging in America
By Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami begins “Conditional Citizens” with the promise of U.S. citizenship: On a steamy day in 2000, she goes to the Pomona Fairplex, a place that also hosts the Los Angeles County Fair, to be sworn in as an American citizen. Moroccan by birth, Lalami came to the United States for graduate studies in linguistics, fully intending to return home. But she met a man, fell in love — and stayed. She and hundreds of other immigrants who have studied and mastered the grand ideals of this country are handed miniature American flags that day and pledge an oath to the United States, its Constitution and its laws. These ceremonies can be deeply moving, and Lalami, a novelist who often writes about being an outsider, emerges convinced she is now an equal citizen in a country where everyone shares common values.
“I thought, somewhat naïvely, I admit, that I would be treated no differently than other Americans,” Lalami writes. In joining America’s 22 million naturalized citizens, she assumed she had gotten the key to the promised land; she is the bearer of an American passport. It doesn’t take long for her — an immigrant, woman, Arab and Muslim — to grasp the yawning gap between the ideal taught in civics lessons and reality. In many ways, she argues, she is a “conditional citizen,” one who soon understands what it is like “for a country to embrace you with one arm and push you away with the other.”
Conditional citizens, in Lalami’s account, are not allowed to dissent or question the choices of their government; if they do, they are viewed with suspicion, their allegiance to their new country questioned. Conditional citizens also have less freedom of movement. Border patrol agents rely on at least 136 checkpoints (the total number in operation at any given time is not publicly available) that are up to 100 miles inside of U.S. borders to stop and question residents. That territory potentially ensnares two-thirds of this country’s population, and each year, hundreds of U.S. citizens are wrongfully held in immigration jails.
[ Read an excerpt from “Conditional Citizens.” ]
Lalami shows how our nation’s schizophrenia toward immigrants — Immigrants built this great country! We are a nation of immigrants! Immigrants bring disease, crime and rob us of our jobs! — can give conditional citizens whiplash as they are simultaneously regarded as America’s best hope and its gravest threat, a combination of suspicion and rejection that Asians, Italians and the Irish, among others, have all faced.