By Damien Croghan
Is attaining citizenship always desirable for immigrants in the United States? It’s often assumed that immigrating to the U.S. directly correlates with becoming a citizen. And for most, that is the goal.
For some immigrants, such as Bhavini Gopaldas, it was a necessity. But for others, such as Anitra Akmeemana, gaining citizenship here means losing touch with her homeland.
Come to the United States.
Get the white picket fence.
In other words, become an American.
At one point, that was the American Dream. And to many, this vision of life in the United States remains intact. Dreams of a better tomorrow still find themselves correlating with the immigrant’s journey into this country.
Immigration attorney Tim Sullivan of Lincoln explained that along with voting rights, an immigrant gains many things when they become a U.S. citizen.
“The right to never, ever be deported again, regardless of future criminal convictions,” Sullivan said. “That’s the number one thing.”
Sullivan also points out a common misconception with immigration: The U.S. does recognize dual citizenship. “There’s a guide published by the State Department that goes through country by country what the laws are regarding dual citizenship … which ones do, which ones don’t,” he said. “The United States does.”
However, there are some countries—among them Sri Lanka, Japan and South Africa—that upon attaining U.S. citizenship, you relinquish your old citizenship.
Immigration attorney Brien Wolzen explained that the “laws are changing all the time. We have to gain knowledge before proceeding with any case.”
Like Sullivan, Wolzen mentioned that attaining citizenship means losing the possibility of being deported. He also discussed why everyone should consult with an immigration lawyer before applying for citizenship.
While there are many things to be gained, in some cases it might not be ideal for the individual.
“[For example,] if you’re coming from Japan,” Wolzen said. “And you own ancestral land, [if] you are no longer a citizen of Japan [you lose property rights]. In order to own land, you must be a citizen of Japan.”
There are also tax-related reasons people don’t want to apply for citizenship Long-term familial ties are another reason. “If you’re a US citizen,” Wolzen said. “You have to apply for visas to visit your home country.”
Some immigrants are hesitant to apply for a variety of reasons. “The most common [reason to be wary of applying] is the English proficiency exam, or the Civics Test,” Sullivan explained. “They’re worried about those things generally.” Some are also worried about prior criminal convictions, and being deported if things like that come to light.
“That’s why it’s a good idea for people to see an attorney beforehand. There are things that could pop up that place them in front of an immigration attorney.”
Bhavini Gopaldas, a graduate student at Union College in Lincoln, moved to the U.S. with her family at age 12 from Blantyre, Malawi. Located in eastern Africa, Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and one of the most AIDS-ridden.
“There is a great divide between the richest rich and the poorest poor,” she said, “as it is with any country like [Malawi]. There’s no middle class, which is what makes it so horrible.”
Her Indian heritage played a role in her having a more privileged life in Malawi. Indians arrived in the country during the Industrial Revolution and have steadily flowed into the country ever since. Her parents, both from India, owned a furniture factory.
Despite being on the higher end of the economic spectrum, Gopaldas and her family still wanted to leave. “There are still things you can’t control in countries like that. It’s so corrupt,” she said. “Even if I went back there on vacation, even though I grew up there, even though it’s a beautiful country, I would never go without my parents. Even with my friends I’d never go. There’s no sense of security.”
Her father wanted to leave Africa to seek out a better life and future for his children.
“The process took forever in Africa,” Gopaldas explained. “We had a lawyer … I would say the process took five years [just to get here].” Her father received their green cards and acquired a work visa to start his own business in the hospitality industry. He got into the hotel business because family members in the U.S. were already involved.
“The main reason we moved to the United States was because all of our family was here,” Gopaldas said. Two of her aunts, an uncle and various cousins were already settled here. Her older brother was also here and had attended college in the U.S. and married an American citizen.
Gopaldas’ family started out in Alabama, where she attended private school for a year.
“Everyone was very stuck up,” she said. “I didn’t know the social norms.”
Her family’s move to Kansas during her freshman year of high school was an easier transition. “That’s when the assimilation process started for me.”
She explained that everyone, not just immigrant teenagers, are becoming socialized.
“[During] the assimilation process, you’re kind of on your own,” she said. “Especially if you’re my age, because your parents aren’t interested in assimilating. They’re very set in their ways.”
From Kansas her family moved to Columbus, Neb., for Gopaldas’ senior year of high school. She explained that they moved because the Midwestern economy is stable, so owning hotels here makes more sense than owning them in the South.
The search for a better life resonates with Anitra Akmeemana, a senior accounting major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Leaving Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, when she was only 6, her family initially resettled in New Zealand where her father got a job at IBM. They acquired dual citizenship and lived in New Zealand for six years, until Akmeemana’s father was laid off. During this time, Akmeemana, her mother and younger sister went back to Sri Lanka while her dad sought a job in the United States. He found one in Omaha, and they left their South Asian island homeland for the Midwestern United States.
“I think it was more difficult adjusting from New Zealand to here [than Sri Lanka to New Zealand], Akmeemana said. “I was so young in New Zealand, so it’s wasn’t bad. At first, understanding the people’s accent was hard. When I moved here, it was very difficult.”
She was overwhelmed by fast-paced lifestyle of the U.S., and she couldn’t understand what people were saying. “All I knew about high school was from the movies,” Akmeemana said.
She graduated from Millard North High School in Omaha in 2010 and came to the university to study accounting at the suggestion of her parents.
“I identify as Sri Lankan, even though I’m a New Zealand citizen [as well]. First and foremost, I was born in Sri Lanka,” Akmeemana explained. “I don’t want to go back to Sri Lanka [permanently] … [but] my home is still there. I can go back whenever I want to.”
This makes sense, because it’s much easier to go back and forth to your home country as a citizen than it is as a U.S. tourist. There are no visa applications for people returning to their home country. Also, Sri Lanka (as well as other countries such as Japan and South Africa), relinquish your status as a citizen there once you gain U.S. citizenship.
She plans to retain her status as a permanent resident in the U.S. while keeping her dual citizenship with Sri Lanka and New Zealand. “We just got our green cards recently. Before that, we were on my dad’s work visa, so we needed permanent residency.”
While still very much identifying with her Sri Lankan identity, Akmeemana sees herself staying in the United States for the foreseeable future. “Once you live abroad, it’s hard to go back to a third world kind of lifestyle. Plus all of my friends are here, too. There are better job opportunities here.”
Her desire to stay in the U.S. for economic reasons conflicts with her strong family ties back in Sri Lanka.
“I definitely miss my family. Only my mom, dad, sister and me are here,” Akmeemana said. “I was always raised around my relatives. My extended family is still close to me. My grandma was like another mother to me.”
Gopaldas, on the other hand, was happy to attain citizenship. She became a citizen in May 2012, just about a decade after her arrival. On top of filling out paperwork and waiting 10 years, there was also the citizenship test.
She said her parents knew most of the citizenship test answers “just from watching the news.” They had a study guide for any they didn’t know.
Some of the questions seemed pretty obvious, Gopaldas said. Who is the president? Who was the first president? How many states are there?
“It was really hard not to laugh at some of the questions,” Gopaldas said. “Questions like ‘Are you a member of the Communist Party?’ and ‘Are you a terrorist?’ were on the test.”
After passing the citizenship test, there is a induction ceremony, complete with a video of President Barack Obama welcoming you to the country.
“I think my father was the one who was more worried,” Gopaldas said. “I always felt protected [during the citizenship process] because I thought my dad was going to get it right.
“My dad would get really stressed about it. He was just so eager to get citizenship because he’d been doing this my whole life. He spent a lot of money on it.” Gopaldas said her father spent upwards of $20,000, or approximately 8 million Malawian Kwacha. “There are a lot of lawyers in Africa who will promise you things like ‘You’ll become an American citizen.’ It could have easily been fraud.
“I was too young to understand or stress out about the process.”
She is happy to have become a US citizen.
“I was very excited to vote in the last election,” Gopaldas said. “As of last year, I’d spent more of my life in this country than anywhere else. I didn’t see myself as not an American. I didn’t see myself as a British citizen or an African anymore. That was my childhood.
“I became independent and learned who I am in this country. There’s a sense of security in knowing that if you work hard, you can get what you want,” she said. “At that point I realized the value in being an American citizen.”