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Yvonne Abraham

Citizen Abraham

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / April 13, 2008

I am sitting in a tiny office in the JFK Federal Building downtown. A nice man in a friendly tweed jacket is asking me questions. I am trying to answer correctly, and without smarty-pants repartee.

This last is proving quite challenging.

"Have you ever been a member or in any way associated with the Communist Party?"

How retro! I do not say. Have you no decency sir, at long last?

Instead: No.

"Have you ever had a problem with alcohol?"

What do you mean by 'problem,' exactly?

No.

"Have you ever been associated with a terrorist organization?"

Does Al Qaeda count?

No.

This interview is the last hurdle between me and US citizenship.

I'm one of those model immigrants the crackdown types are always talking about: the ones who follow the rules and wait their turn. I came here from Australia nearly 15 years ago as a student, stayed on an H1B work visa when there were still plenty of them, married an American, and got a green card. The FBI scrubbed me and I came up clean.

Lucky for me, I had resources to manage all of this. I had help from lawyers, money to cover filing fees, a birthplace that arouses no suspicion, and education enough to find a way through the morass that is the nation's immigration system.

If I get through this, I will belong here, officially and permanently. I will be able to travel more easily. I will have the same nationality as my new, US-born son. I will get to vote in November.

I am nervous as hell.

I'm not the only one. In the waiting room, dozens of equally anxious immigrants are doing last-minute drills for the history and civics quiz that is part of this final step. For some, getting here was much more difficult than it was for me, and for them, citizenship means even more: safety from persecution, a way to bring wives or children to live with them after long separations, a chance for better jobs, access to federal assistance.

For all of us, years of waiting have come down to this day, these questions.

About 16 percent of applicants fail the English and civics test portion of the interview on the first go. An Asian man in a nearby cubicle might be one of them.

"Who was the first president?" the immigration officer asks him.

A long pause.

"The FIRST PRESIDENT!" the officer barks.

This does not imbue me with calm.

When it's my turn, I identify my two senators. I pick the nation's two major political parties. I define Congress as the legislative branch. I give the street address of the White House and the month a new president is inaugurated. And, after blanking for what seems like an eternity, I recite some principles from the Declaration of Independence.

I demonstrate my command of English. "I am not very hungry," I read. "I had a big lunch today," I write.

Friendly jacket guy asks me if I support the overthrow of any government by force or violence, then he asks me if I would be willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States if the law requires it. I resist the urge to point out the inconsistency here, what with Iraq and all.

So it's: No, then yes.

The already-American Abraham, snuggled in the stroller beside me, coos adorably through more questions. I am hoping this is scoring me points.

Eventually, the adjudicator pulls out a stamp and plants a big "Approved" on my application.

I am not a communist, an alcoholic, a terrorist. Right now, I am not even a smarty-pants.

I feel a rush of joy, and pride. I head back out into the waiting room to get the date of my swearing-in, and I am met by the smiling faces of other happy applicants.

We are going to be Americans.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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