I’m originally from Trinidad and Tobago. I came here when I was 19 years old to go to college, but wasn’t able to finish my degree at the time. In 2012 I got my green card through marriage and became eligible for citizenship three years later. But I did not actually make an appointment to begin the citizenship application process for almost a year because of the expense.
I wasn’t surprised that the application cost that much. I had been through the green card process, so I was used to large filing fees, but it was a matter of getting the money together. At the time, I was working at a family group daycare. I gave up spending money on certain things that I enjoyed, and it meant really budgeting. I also didn’t want to miss a day of work. The main word I would use to describe this time is “sacrifice.” But I told myself that it’s going to be worth it in the end. I’m getting tears in my eyes right now because becoming a United States citizen was always the biggest goal for me, not just being a permanent resident. As a permanent resident I could work, live here, and travel, but it was always with restrictions. I never actually traveled when I had my green card because I couldn’t be out of the country for long periods of time. I always said, when I travel back home to Trinidad, I will do so as an American citizen.
Also on the top of my list was the ability to vote and to be part of the democratic process in America. When I first came to the U.S. in 2000, I settled in Philadelphia where the Republican national convention was being held. I remember going to the convention and being on the convention floor and I said, “One day this is going to be me. One day I’m going vote in this country.”
I used to read Allan Wernick [Director of CUNY Citizenship Now!] in the NY Daily News, every week. I decided that when I became eligible for citizenship, I would go to CUNY Citizenship Now! So when the time came, I got everything together and called and made an appointment to go to one of their workshops at Hunter College in Manhattan. When I arrived, I got my packet, I was screened, and then I spoke to one of the attorneys there. I remember her going through everything with me. I didn’t realize that she would literally fill out the N400 form with me. Nor did I know that I would get an envelope with the address already printed on it to send my application to the Immigration Services. I was so impressed with everything from start to finish; it was so smooth and so professional. I told myself as soon as I become a citizen, I’m going to come back and volunteer.
Going through the naturalization process, you work through highs and lows until you get the notification of your oath ceremony. The day that I found out, my mom was the first person I called. My sister was second. They were both screaming on the phone. I also thought of my father. He passed away before I could even get permanent residence in this country and because I couldn’t leave the country I didn’t get to attend his funeral. In that moment I remembered him and I saw his smile. I remembered him always saying to me, “I’m so proud of you.” I knew at that moment that if he were still alive, he would have told me how proud he was of me.
When you go to the ceremony and actually take the oath of allegiance to the United States, there’s nothing like it. I was with my fellow new Americans and the energy in the room was amazing, especially right after, when they congratulated us. I saw grown men cry. It’s an indescribable feeling because you cannot believe that you actually achieved this. I work as a preschool teacher now and I will finish college in 2021. I was also trained to volunteer at CUNY citizenship events. I’m in the applications section and now I’m the one helping fill out the N-400 for people. I love it! I meet people from all over the world and I let them know that I was in their shoes three years ago, sitting in that very same spot.
Last February, I went back to Trinidad for the first time since I came to this country 18 years ago—and I did so as an American citizen! I think people respect you a lot more. When I came back in through passport control, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer said, “Welcome back home.” It was amazing! I was in and out of customs in 15 minutes. For me it’s all about respect, about job opportunities, and just making a better life. My advice to lawful permanent residents is, “Do it. Do it now. Please don’t wait!” I meet so many people that have had their green cards for 20, 30, or even 40 years. Without your U.S. citizenship you’re keeping a door shut because you’re missing out on so many opportunities. And there are so many resources and so many wonderful not-for-profit organizations out there that help. “So take that first step. Take that leap, and just do it!”
Chinyere Melville is a CUNY Citizenship Now! Volunteer Corps Member.