Cathleen Farrell is the director of communications of the National Immigration Forum. She is a native of Canada, and moved to the United States with her two Colombian-born daughters 19 years ago.
I was living and working in Bogota, Colombia, and I moved to Miami Beach, Florida in 2000, on an H-1B visa to help start a media company. It took seven years to get my green card, and then another five years of waiting before I was eligible for citizenship. My daughters, Manuela and Carolina, were five and one when we first came to the United States. Once I realized that my children had come to consider this home, it made it important to make our home more permanent than a green card. My daughters were both born in Colombia; their father lives there and they visit at least twice a year, but their loyalties are to this country, because this is where they grew up. This is their home, this is where their friends are, this is the culture they know and are familiar with.
After we moved to Washington DC, and later, when I began working for the National Immigration Forum, I really started to realize how important it was to become a U.S. citizen. I led some research that we carried out on the perceived obstacles people have to the naturalization process and it made me realize the urgency of becoming a citizen—having a green card and being a permanent resident is not necessarily permanent at all. You may consider the U.S. your country, but it doesn’t consider you a citizen. I needed to become a citizen because I wanted to live here, I wanted to be able to vote, and I wanted it to be able to participate as fully as possible in our democracy.
By the time my family became eligible for citizenship, my oldest was just about 18-years-old. She felt very much like an American and very much at home here and she wanted to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy (Annapolis). In order to go to the armed service academies like West Point, Annapolis, or the Air Force Academy, you must be a U.S. citizen. That was part of the urgency for Manuela, so she became a citizen first. Not only was she accepted to the Naval Academy, she just graduated and is now a naval officer! When I applied for citizenship in early 2017, I had hoped that I would become a citizen before the end of the year, because my youngest daughter would turn 18 in December; if she was under 18 she would automatically become a citizen with me. But the naturalization application process is so backlogged that I didn’t become a citizen in time for her. The day after she turned 18, we submitted her application so that she could begin her own process. I was sworn in several months later.
Immigrants are very inspired by American history; we are drawn to it. When each one of us prepared for our interviews, we all prepared together and we would do all 100 questions on the citizenship test. In fact, my brothers in Canada all took the test too, just for the fun of it. And they all scored a hundred!
When I did become a citizen, I felt a huge relief. It gave me a sense of belonging. I’m permanently in this country and don’t have to worry ever again about renewing a visa. It also gave me a new sense of urgency about the need to participate in this country and to make it a better place. It’s difficult to live in a community or a society where you don’t completely have a voice. The fact that you can vote is really powerful and it’s important to vote if for no other reason than to express your opinion. It makes me feel a lot more hopeful about the world that I’m leaving to my daughters.
On the day I became a U.S. citizen, in mid-March of 2018, Carolina, my youngest daughter told me she was happy. But, because both her older sister and I were now citizens, she said, “Mami, I feel like I’ve been left behind.” It was very sad, and very heartfelt. I was hopeful for her, however, because her application was very straightforward. Sure enough, it took about a year and she became a citizen last December. It was a big relief, and a moment of pride. It would have been nice if I had become a citizen when they were younger, so that their naturalization was derivative, but it was also special that we each had our own process. It gave the girls a certain sense of independence but they also had to be responsible for their own interviews, their own applications, and the process itself. That made it much more meaningful for them.
When I took the oath of citizenship I think my heart skipped a beat or two. Something about you is changing and being affirmed and that has a certain amount of drama to it. You’re confirming your own commitment to the country. So, it’s a big deal. It’s like getting married! Especially because I have a daughter who’s a naval officer, I think about what she’s doing with her life and what she’s willing to do for this country. That moment, standing there with people from more than 50 other countries—it’s just tremendously moving. I want to share what I see as American optimism. I think immigrants help renew this country; we help remind Americans of why this is a great country. It’s given me tremendous opportunities and given my daughters some extraordinary educational opportunities. This country has also allowed me to raise my children with certain values and freedoms that I’ve always shared and cherished.
On the day that each of was sworn in, we had a flag flown in our honor over the U.S. Capitol. They fly it over the Capitol and then they send it to you afterward. A friend of mine introduced us to the Capitol Flag Program. She had it done for my oldest daughter and then for me. I did it for my youngest daughter as well. That’s why in these photos you see us standing in the middle of the street with the Capitol in the background. We are saying, “Hey that’s our flag!”