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U.S. Citizenship: Taking the Plunge

May 2007
U.S. Citizenship: Taking the Plunge

"An Indian passport is valuable," a wag once noted, "because it lets you leave India; an American passport is valuable because it lets you stay in America."

Though meant as a one-liner, how sad and true it sounds even today. We may have more of a two-way street now, but the traffic flowing from India to America remains heavy, whereas it's still relatively modest—and will remain so—in the other direction. In the first half of this decade, according to census figures, 459,000 Indians relocated to the United States; by comparison, in the entire pre-1980 period, only 170,000 Indians moved here. There are other startling examples of America's enduring appeal for would-be migrants around the world. Just last month, the annual cap of 65,000 for H-1B visas was reached within a matter of hours on the first day of filing. By mid-afternoon the following day, after 150,000 petitions had already been received, applications for the current year were no longer being accepted.

What's more, in this decade, immigrants (including Indians) are embracing U.S. citizenship at a higher rate than they'd done for a generation. But at 65 percent, we still have a lower rate of naturalization than a lot of other nationalities, as per a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center. For most Asian groups, the percentages are in the low to mid-70s, and for Middle Easterners, it is as high as 77. Even Canadians and Europeans, at 69 percent, score higher than Indians. A major reason could be that India didn't offer overseas citizenship until now. Still, the very fact that a relatively large number of eligible Indian Americans remain permanent residents rather than become U.S. citizens shows that we tend to be a proud lot—which is ironical, one might add, considering that we didn't hesitate to leave India in the first place. As somebody said, you can easily take an Indian out of India, but it's not so easy to take India out of an Indian.

Another good reason for the ambivalence, at least among certain immigrants, is that our confidence in America has been badly shaken in recent years. This may come across as an instance of grandstanding by foreign-born residents, who, in any case, have to tread warily in these emotionally charged debates. "If you don't like it here, why don't you go back to where you came from?" is a conversation-stopping retort that, I suspect, not a few immigrants hear at some point in their lives. Even worse, they could be accused of being ungrateful arrivistes who bite the hand that feeds them. That's missing the point, though. Like countless American citizens, both native-born and naturalized, our beef is really with the U.S. government and the vast military-industrial complex associated with it.

For some, this disillusion began only in 2004, when America chose to keep the Bush administration in power, but for many of us, it goes back to the start of the decade. In late 2000, we watched in disbelief as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney—despite losing the popular vote—were selected rather than elected as the president and vice president of the U.S. Dubious arguments were put forward to justify a tainted process that, one could argue, led to an illegitimate result. Chad, we found out, was not just a nation in Africa, and the Electoral College sounded like a university that taught politicians how to cheat in elections. And let's not even talk about the Supreme Court. The Economist magazine—hardly a liberal publication—captured that bewilderment well with the title "The Accidental President" for its cover story.

So from the very start of Bush's first term, it's been one disaster after another. The Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, etc. having already been covered ad nauseam, there's hardly a need to revisit that depressing litany in the limited space here. But rest assured, we haven't seen the last of it. If The Economist decides to commemorate the last days of the Bush administration with another cover story, here's an appropriate title: "The Disastrous Presidency." Has there been a more inept and arrogant—and mendacious, we might add, except that Nixon hasn't been forgotten—U.S. administration in living memory?

One could be mean-spirited and say, "Well, they asked for it." And indeed, troublingly huge numbers of people around the world—even in so-called friendly countries—seem to have soured on America. In a BBC poll earlier this year, 49 percent of the respondents in 25 nations "said the U.S. played a mainly negative role in the world." In India, positive views of America's influence have fallen to 30 percent (from 54 percent in 2005 and 44 percent in 2006).

Yet those who live in this country do not feel that way, because the ‘they' is actually ‘we' even when we're not U.S. citizens. So there is no schadenfreude here, no I-told-you-so smugness, no gleeful satisfaction. Instead, there is disappointment and anger and helplessness. Yet there is also something hypocritical about those of us who chose to sit on the fence and not become American citizens, even when we could, during this calamitous period. We didn't leave the U.S. in protest and we didn't give up our precious Green Cards. And we continue to enjoy the many benefits that this country so generously provides.

"You're like an aging bachelor in a long-term relationship," a relative said to me in exasperation, "who wants to live with her but doesn't want to marry her."

We procrastinators are running out of excuses, however, now that this lame-duck administration—thank god!—won't last beyond 2008, and now that India no longer jealously denies its citizenship rights to Indians who hold American passports. U.S. citizenship, ultimately, grants not only privileges but also responsibilities. A cherished privilege, which also counts as a great responsibility, is the ability to vote. So now is the time for us to take the plunge and tie the knot, so to speak. We'll finally have our say only if we become U.S. citizens and cast our ballots in the next presidential election.

By Murali Kamma

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