News / January 22, 2020

Professor reflects on citizenship process

Cate Denial began to panic when she handed in her green card. In a state of limbo, not yet an American citizen but without a green card, she sat quietly terrified as the other immigrants filed into the courtroom.

The Bright Distinguished Professor of American History was pleased to notice the photograph of President Barack Obama had not yet been taken down and replaced with Donald Trump, who was being sworn into office that day.

A judge took her seat at the front of the courtroom to begin the naturalization ceremony, a female representative from the U.S military at her side. From that point on, Denial’s memory of the proceedings is a blur. She remembers saying the pledge, an oath and going up one by one to get their certificates of naturalization but she can’t quite remember in what order it all happened.

“I don’t have a good, clear memory of doing one thing and then the next and then the next,” Denial said.


Knox professor Cate Denial poses with the judge and military officer that oversaw her naturalization. (Photo courtesy of Cate Denial)

When the ceremony was over, Denial and the other newly naturalized citizens were led into a room with cookies and punch. The room was utter chaos, filled with family members, Social Security Administration employees and volunteers to register voters.

Denial couldn’t even begin to think about eating. She tried to find her friends among a sea of families, flowers and gifts. Reporters interviewed Denial, fascinated that so many people were being naturalized while Trump was being inaugurated.

Before leaving the courthouse, Denial took a photo with the judge and the military representative. She wore a dress that was from Britain, where she was born, and was decorated with red, white and blue poppies.

Finally reunited with her friends, Denial went out for lunch at a Thai restaurant. She was taken aback by a feeling of total relief once she was out of the chaos of the courtroom.

“I just felt like a noodle afterwards,” Denial said. “Just like, ‘Wow, it’s done, and they can’t take it back now.’”

Denial and her friends spent the rest of that day together, being “just a little silly.”

“It was great,” Denial said, “except for knowing that Trump had just been sworn in as president.”

As she reflected on her experience with immigration and naturalization, Denial remarked again and again how privileged she was. She had a lawyer to help her, she is white and she speaks fluent English.

As terrified as she was, Denial knows she had it easy compared to others and is in awe of immigrants who tackle the naturalization process on their own.

“There would be people there whose grasp of English was not great, who were navigating it all on their own, who didn’t have lawyers, and I just couldn’t imagine how hard that was,” Denial said.

Denial continues to be conscious of the privilege she had in experiencing the naturalization process, especially as the Trump administration makes it harder and harder for immigrants to get into the country legally, much less gain citizenship. Although her own immigration and naturalization process went as smoothly as it could have, Denial believes the immigration process should be easier.

“It should not take the amount of money that it does. We should not be holding people in cages at the border. We should not be causing trauma to children and their parents. Everything about the way that immigration is run in this country is scary and unkind, deeply unkind,” Denial said.


Sarah Eitel

Tags:  Cate Denial Catherine Denial people

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