“I have a friend—"
The immigration official shook his head in disgust. No preamble and no name. Just the old “I have a friend” routine. At least the guy spoke decent English. No accent at all, as far as he could tell.
“Right. So tell me about your—friend.” The official rolled his eyes. He figured he could indulge himself, since no one could see him over the phone.
The caller explained: His friend had come to the United States with his parents and his three older siblings when he was a baby. He had been born in a small city not far from the border. The family had entered the United States legally and the parents later became naturalized citizens, sometime during the friend’s childhood. Or so he thought.
The official listened. The caller sounded educated. And definitely not a kid. Someone who should have known better.
“So—what’s your question? Your friend’s question, I mean.” Like he couldn’t guess.
The caller got to the point. Finally. His friend had always assumed he had automatically acquired U.S. citizenship when his parents were naturalized. But recently he’d started to have second thoughts. Maybe he—or his parents—should have done something else, to make it official. The friend had actually started to worry, because he’d just taken his first serious job, and he thought his new employer might be concerned about his citizenship.
“So—do you have any advice I could pass along to my friend?”
“Advice? Sure. You tell your friend he needs to get his ass down here right away.”
I’ve taken some liberties in reconstructing this little vignette. The story is true, but the only line of dialogue I know for sure is the last one. The punchline.
The caller took the advice to heart. He got his own ass down to the immigration office right away—along with his father’s. Fortunately, the older man was still living, and he could document his son’s story.
I assume my father already had a copy of his Canadian birth certificate.
From the time I was a little girl, I knew my father’s immigration story. It went like this: His parents and three older siblings emigrated from Scotland to Ontario, Canada, where my father was born in 1922. When he was about a year old, the family left Canada and settled in Cleveland. Six years later, the family returned to Scotland for a year, where my father had his first year of school. Then they returned to Cleveland for good. Somewhere along the line, they all became citizens. I figured it happened when my father was a child. Or, if not then, when he served in the Army during World War II.
My mother made a big deal of my father’s citizenship status. She always put it like this:
“Your father is a naturalized citizen, you know. So that means he can never be President of the United States.”
She repeated it often.
Imagine that! As a little girl, I could not believe the sheer injustice of it all. I was indignant—at the unfairness to my father, not to mention the loss to the country. My Daddy was probably the smartest man in Cleveland. My Mommy told me, so it must be true. He had a master’s degree in political science and he had even gone to Harvard. Twice. (He left both times, too!) He’d been shut out of the Presidency because of some dumb law. And Canada wasn’t exactly a foreign country, anyhow.
When I got a little older, I realized that my father, regardless of his birthplace, would never have been a likely candidate for political office. He had dreamed of being a writer or a professor, but ended up as a mid-level business executive. So my mother’s remark was definitely odd. But I took it to be just one more example of family myth building.
But now, all these years later, my mother has told me the strange story of how my father—belatedly—established his citizenship. So I think the point of her remark was not, as I thought, to make a case for my father’s towering intellect. She wanted to make sure we all understood that he really was a U.S. citizen.
The new story is this: A few years after I was born, my father got a civilian job in the training department of the U.S. Navy. Something he read (my mother gets a little vague here) made him begin to wonder about his citizenship status. He made an anonymous call to someone—maybe it was the Immigration and Naturalization Service, maybe it was the Navy—to get some answers for an unnamed “friend” with a little immigration problem.
After that, everyone got “very worried,” according to my mother. The official who told him to get his ass over there. His boss at the Navy. My father. His father. And my mother, I’m sure.
I assume my father’s father—my affable Grandpa Kilpatrick—produced the family’s old British passports from the 1920’s, which my mother recently passed along to me, as well as the record of his own 1939 naturalization, which I’ve found online.
From what I’ve read of immigration law at the time, my grandfather’s children would have been automatically granted citizenship based on his naturalization, after they each had five years of residence in the United States—as long as they had been issued a green card, as proof of legal residence. I’m guessing this last step was somehow overlooked.
Along with the old family passports, I now have a copy of my father’s citizenship paper. It’s a peculiar document. It’s a declaration of citizenship after the fact, based on my father having been naturalized in 1939, the same date as his father. And it was issued much later than I was led to believe: in 1958, several years after the problem came to light.
I still wonder why there was so much worry about my father’s ambiguous status, which seemed to hinge on a technicality. Perhaps it was because he was an employee of the U.S. government. Or it may reflect the McCarthy-era frenzy of the early 1950s, with the paranoid anxiety about loyalty, especially among the foreign-born.
One thing is clear: When I playfully commented in an earlier essay that I was the daughter of an illegal, it was no joke!
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders