Green Card Blues
What's that space between a green card and citizenship?
It has been nearly a quarter century since I reached the shores of this “promised land” and almost 20 years since I began holding the inappropriately named green card. For reasons untold and impossible to comprehend, it is now time to seek citizenship.
As a permanent resident alien, a status one acquires in a morgue or a prison, the benefits were palpable. There was nothing to worry about in terms of legal residency in this country and no particular loss for not being a citizen. I worked hard as all citizens did and perhaps a lot harder than some of them. I paid my taxes and deductions and enjoyed all the other penalties or benefits of social security and the paltry and inhuman healthcare. The citizens were blessed with the same problems. On a daily basis, there is precious little that was different between a normal citizen who did not really test or taste the limits of what he had and a permanent resident alien.
This country, this great inheritor of the Enlightenment, offered a lot to immigrants. There was not just a promise of making money, but of living in a culture, which could demonstrate an essential ingredient of humanity in freedom.
It is not the kind of freedom that employs bomb and instruments of torture as our president believes, but a freedom of the spirit and freedom to think to test its limits. Green card holders knew that and practiced it well.
As the saying goes, in a country with full freedom to speak, people have nothing to say. That is the case with citizens as well as immigrants. But in the case of citizens, it is particularly embarrassing.
One clear advantage citizens have is the power to vote. Democracy means a lot more than voting, of course, but to the extent it means that, voting is important.
As a green card holder, the choices that have come our way over the last 20 years have not been exciting, to say the least. One is caught between the proverbial twiddle de and twiddle dum. It is their SOB or our SOB. Politics is more about money, less about ideas and hardly ever about making real changes.
Missing one vote may mean a lot in principle, but in the absurd world of the electoral college, it means even less. So if you could afford to snooze every two or four years when democracy awakens, you wish you were a citizen, but not for long.
Travel was not very different for green card holders either. Traveling to India as a citizen is, as many know, more of an effort. There was some straight-shoulder joy in going to India as a citizen of that country and for a while at least put your sold-out identity aside.
But these days, our brown skin comes into play more than ever. To be an American citizen presents clear advantages and equally urgent dangers. In some parts of the world, it is not exactly a matter of ease and comfort to be an American citizen. It was quite a sight in Brazil last year to see Americans being fingerprinted in retaliation for similar measures here. Stories abound about Americans being confronted about its international policies, particularly since the war against terrorism.
Then there was the mishandled mirage of dual citizenship. That seemed like a cure for all ills for people who wanted to belong to both, without giving up either. Clearly the forces driving it were financial rather than cultural, but it offered a lot to those who could not think of surrendering an identity that was deep in their hearts for ease in travel or in voting, given that all other things were the same.
As one unravels all this, it is evident that citizenship is a state of mind. More so in a globalized world. We come here, become American citizens and still practice our culture and wear clothes bought in American malls, which are made in India. One could be a citizen without being a rabid patriot and a green card holder with fierce loyalty to the fundamental values of this country.
The promise of this country is precisely enshrined in the best principles humanity has ever endorsed. One could belong without blind submission and with full loyalty that included the right to oppose. It is still possible to live in that world and many of us still prefer to.
But now in this inhumane world, with a hypersensitive superpower poised to struggle with terrorism the rest of our lives, it is difficult to remain a green card holder for long. One could go on about the clear and present dangers of not being a citizen in this country as the noose of homeland security tightens and as we become a society given to suspicion and surveillance. But the practical reasons often overwhelm principles.
For example, as some Indians unhappily know, there is now a category of “transit-visa” for London airports. Think about it. You are already on a plane after security checks, and then you land in London, merely race to catch another flight in less than two hours. For that innocuous travel on your own feet, when you are spending your own money and lugging around bags that have been checked, you need the permission of the British Government to exist as a person in “transit.”
If for some reason, you conduct this exercise of changing planes in Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland or France, you are exempt from it. They have their own list of suspicious nationalities, but as an Indian you are not among them.
Surely there must be reasons for doing so, but for any common person, they are hard to fathom. After all, the most damaging terrorist acts were pulled off by people with legitimate visas. There must be something that we should be looking for other than transit visas to spot suspects.
That reason alone is justification to take out citizenship. It beats the bureaucracy at airports at least. And perhaps things will get better here too.
Perhaps there will be health care for all and it will be worth it just to have a feeling that we are a citizen of a country that cares. Maybe all this hoopla about the United States become a monotheistic and almost theocratic state will fade and the nation will awaken to the finest ideals on which it was founded.
There is a possibility that we will throw up better politicians who run on their vision and ideas instead of the slash and burn warfare during political campaigns and voting will be worth it again. Until then, our limbo of wanting to belong somewhere, but not being able to make a full commitment, will endure.