Chair of History Catherine Denial first decided she wanted to complete her U.S. citizenship in the fall of 2015 so she could participate in the 2016 presidential election. Although she wasn’t sworn in until inauguration day of 2017, Denial doesn’t regret her decision for a second.
“When I took my oath, the thing I felt most immediately was relief. I was safe,” Denial said. “When you’re an immigrant, no matter whether you have a visa or a green card, you’re constantly aware of the fact that you don’t have the right to stay here.”
Referencing the recent immigration bans on Muslims, Denial said the fears of deportation, or not being allowed back into the country after returning home, are not as crazy as it might have seemed 12 years ago.
“The whole time I was an immigrant here, those things seemed like far off radical possibilities. Now, they’re not. They’re happening to people,” Denial said, describing how, even though people today might have gone through the process to get a green card or a visa and still might be sent home, is an immigrant’s worst nightmare.
“Like me, it could have been someone who’s living here for twenty years, has a family, has a job, has no connection to their country of origin anymore, has paid taxes here, is completely set up here … this is where their life is,” Denial said, mentioning that now, with a stroke of a pen, anyone could be sent back. “It’s nightmarish to think that can now happen.”
As a white woman from England, Denial described how she probably had one of the easiest access points towards U.S. citizenship, despite still having to partake in the various tests and applications. Numerous factors made the process smoother for her, such as English being her first language, her extensive education, her ability to read complicated documents and her financial means to access legal help.
“People of power assume that I am unthreatening, so nobody is going to do additional scrutiny of me, nobody is going to assume that I, as a white woman, am going to be Muslim,” Denial said. “They’re not going to make any connection between how I look and various stereotypes. I think that I probably had one of the easiest pathways through immigration as possible to have and it still took years.”
Although Denial cited the many privileges she had when she first began her application process, she still had to partake in the tedious, drawn out process of becoming a citizen, such as filling out an extensive application, having a biometric exam and undergoing vetting and background checks. She also had to take a test on American history, geography and civics as well as read and write a sentence in English.
Denial also explained that, while she is a history professor, the tests were still nerve-wracking.
“They give you a book that has 100 questions that they can ask you. So, if you can memorize them you’re going to be okay,” Denial said. “You go into this little office and they ask you these questions, and everything you’ve worked on hangs on getting those things right.”
After having gone through the process to gain her citizenship, Denial believes there needs to be more access points for undocumented immigrants to become legal immigrants.
“I think if you’re undocumented in America, it is really difficult. It’s a very uncertain life and there just aren’t very many avenues from being undocumented to being able to legally migrate into American society,” Denial said, describing how undocumented immigrants are still contributing to society by paying taxes and working. “It’s somewhat of an outdated way of thinking for someone that thinks we should build a wall or shut the gates or whatever it is.”
Citing knowledge from her history background, Denial also mentioned how the countries which have tried to implement policies to deter immigration have never worked or been effective. She also mentioned how immigrants have always been a part of American society.
“The country wouldn’t exist in the shape that it is in right now if weren’t for immigrants,” Denial said.
However, while Denial believes that the process to gain American citizenship should be made more accessible to undocumented immigrants, she isn’t sure the questions should be less involved.
“[U.S. citizenship] should be easier to do if English isn’t your first language, and it should be easier to do if you are someone who does not have disposable income,” Denial said. “It should be a process in which you are supported, instead of an adversarial process, which is what it feels like right now.”