I came to the United States first with my mom when I was 4 years old. She came to study education for 6 or 7 months, and wanted to open a language academy in Ecuador for people to learn English. As my mom was finishing her education there was a financial crisis in Ecuador, so it wasn’t a great time for her to go back. She was offered a job in the U.S. and her work visa allowed her to sponsor my dad and me. He later got a job that sponsored his visa. Our green cards eventually followed.
The amount of time we lived here just kept getting longer and longer. One day you wake up and realize—we’ve lived here 12 years and we like it! Maybe we should stay for the foreseeable future. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have come here that way—you don’t necessarily expect to stay forever, but eventually something changes the equation for you.
My dad is from Chile, but my parents met in Ecuador where my mother grew up. My mom’s parents were Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia who fled shortly before the Nazis invaded. The U.S. was the top choice for my great-grandparents, but at the time the door was shut to them. A lot of Jews during World War II were denied entry into the United States. But my great-grandparents ended up in Ecuador of all places. They didn’t speak the language and they didn’t know the culture, but they figured it out as they went along.
I think for me a big motivation to become a citizen was to have the ability to vote. I was a policy nerd ever since I was a child. It was my grandfather’s influence. My grandfather was a chemical engineer. He always followed the state of affairs. When I was growing up my mom was in the United States studying, and my dad was traveling a lot for work, so I grew up with my grandparents for a few years and my grandfather and I spent a lot of time together. He really taught me about being an informed citizen and civic engagement. Now I catch up with him over the phone and we usually talk politics.
Some people say, “I’m not going to talk about politics. It doesn’t affect me.” For my family, that’s never been true because politics forced my family on my mother’s side out of their homeland. And my dad’s family is from Chile where there was a brutal military dictatorship, which also drove them out of their country. So, whether we like it or not, politics plays a role in our lives, and that has always impacted how my family feels about being civically engaged and participating in the process—you can’t opt out.
I think the moment that I really felt the importance of becoming a citizen, and the benefits that came along with it, was during the election of 2012. I had missed out on the election of 2008, which for my generation was really exciting; at the time we felt that it was life or death, everything was on the line. So by 2012, I thought it was really important for me to be able to vote in that election. I remember filling out the citizenship application packet for weeks on end. For the most part, people have a fear of the unknown. Time was a barrier for me, and I think there are many ways to address all those barriers. When you’re able to see an example of what the process looks like, I think that eases tensions. When my organization, Entre Hermanos, holds citizenship classes, we always bring someone in who recently naturalized. It helps people connect to someone who looks like them, who has had similar experiences, and can bring the process back down to earth.
I hit a barrier when I told the head of the USCIS office that I was going to study abroad, which would interfere with my oath ceremony. He determined that it was not a good reason to delay attending the ceremony. What I learned in the process is that we have recourses. Even if you are a still a green card holder, the country’s elected officials will work for you. I was living in Kentucky and in this case the Republican senator from Kentucky intervened on my behalf. I was a senior in college when I became a citizen.
It was when I was at the ballot box that the inspiration and the importance of citizenship hit me. My story came full circle; my great-grandparents tried to get into the United States and couldn’t, then almost 80 years later I become a U.S. citizen. It is kind of remarkable.
Eric Holzapfel is the Deputy Director of Entre Hermanos, an affiliate of the New Americans Campaign in Seattle, WA