Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow of constitutional studies at Cato Institute, recounts his long, personal journey in becoming a U.S citizen. Mr. Shapiro immigrated with his family to Canada from Russia when he was four years old. For Dick and me, Ilya is among our favored speakers at any Cato event we attend. Ilya explains here that we need “to expand legal immigration, allow productive members of society to come out of the shadows, and then crack down on the criminals and deadbeats who remain.”
After attending college in the United States, then law school, interning for a senator, working on a presidential campaign, and clerking for a federal judge, I practiced law at two major firms in Washington. Still, I was no closer to a green card—the right to permanent residence—because I had not yet worked for an employer who could establish that no American had the “minimal qualifications” for my job. (And there was no way to simply “apply” for a green card because I didn’t have a U.S.-citizen relative, wasn’t a refugee, and didn’t qualify for the “diversity lottery.”)
I finally got my green card—through my current employer and after having volunteered to go to Iraq as a rule-of-law adviser—in 2009 after spending nearly 15 years (my entire adult life) in this country. It was easier for my family to leave the Soviet Union and immigrate to Canada! Indeed, earning a law degree and joining the Supreme Court bar was more straightforward than getting a green card!
With five years about to pass—it’s three for those who get green cards through marriage—I put in my naturalization papers. In February I was fingerprinted for a criminal-background check, and last week went in for my naturalization interview.
At this interview, the examiner first verifies your identity and confirms what you submitted in your application (name, address, marital status, haven’t tried to overthrow the government, not a Communist/terrorist, etc.), then has you write a sentence to test your English literacy (for me: “Columbus Day is in October,”), then asks up to 10 oral civics questions until you get six right (out of 100 possibilities). These were mine:
- What did the Declaration of Independence do?
- We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?
- If both the President and Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?
- What does the President’s Cabinet do?
- How many justices are on the Supreme Court?
- Name one branch or part of the government. [I joked beforehand that I had to study this, and indeed clinched my naturalization with the answer, “judicial.”]
Other potential questions included naming a state that borders Canada or Mexico, three of the original colonies, your congressman or senator, and a right protected by the First Amendment. Although the sad truism is that most native-born Americans wouldn’t pass this test, it wasn’t hard for me given that I write about law and politics for a living.
The examiner was both professional and friendly. I read all the materials that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had sent me, so there were no surprises. And that’s the last step before I take the citizenship oath, with my swearing-in ceremony expected in the next few months.
In general, this naturalization process has been the easiest, most stress-free interaction with any level of government I’ve ever had.
Of course, this six-month period is but the capstone on a decades-long journey—including plenty of less-pleasant bureaucratic encounters, plus prolonged periods of despair at ever having the opportunity to reach this goal. (Not many immigrants are in a position to have petitions filed for treatment as an “alien of exceptional ability,” supported by a federal judge, a four-star general, and a senior administration official, among others.)
But shouldn’t the tough parts come at this final, naturalization stage? Every other immigrant-attracting country makes it relatively easy for foreigners to come live peacefully but demands more of would-be citizens. It’s precisely backwards to make it so much easier to naturalize than to be able to work here!