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April 2020 Issue [Essay]

Bright Stars

The unfulfilled promise of American citizenship
Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Illustration by Shonagh Rae


Bright Stars

The unfulfilled promise of American citizenship

I  became an American on a sweltering day in 2000, a day when the marine layer over Los Angeles cleared off before breakfast. The date had been circled on my wall calendar with the same blue Sharpie I used to mark holidays, and I thought of it as an equally festive occasion, the culmination of a journey that had begun when I came to the United States as a student eight years earlier. Over the course of those years, I had adopted—almost without realizing it—two of the more emblematic trappings of that particular era: a job at a tech startup and an SUV for which I had no discernible need. The deregulation of banks, the war in the Balkans, and Bill Clinton’s angry denials that he did not have sexual relations with that woman were in the past. The NASDAQ was at a record high; unemployment was at a record low. The future seemed full of possibility.

The citizenship ceremony was held at the Fairplex, a 487-acre facility best known for hosting the Los Angeles County Fair every summer. I remember wearing a sleeveless dress, a silver necklace my mother had given me, and a pair of high heels. My husband was in the same black suit and tie he had worn at our wedding. We made our way to Building Four, a large, gray hall where I turned in my Alien Registration Card and was handed a miniature American flag in return. Folding chairs had been set up in two columns: those who were to be sworn in had to sit on the left side of the aisle, their guests on the right.

At precisely 9:00 am, the first few notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played on the loudspeaker, and a hush fell over the audience. The air smelled of fresh roses and heavy cologne, a mixture that could not fully disguise the scent of three thousand people gathered in a windowless hall in ninety-eight-degree weather. The presiding judge, an elderly man in wire-rimmed glasses, came to the lectern and delivered a homily about the rights and responsibilities that awaited us. Citizenship was a privilege we had earned, he said, and we were to honor it by participating in civic life—voting in elections, serving on juries, even running for office. He had kindly eyes and a warm demeanor; it seemed impossible that he would ever hand down a cruel or unfair sentence in his courtroom. After his speech, the judge moved to the center of the stage and asked us to stand so that we could recite the oath of allegiance. I raised my right hand.

Love had brought me to that moment. When I came to the United States, my intention had been to complete a doctoral degree in linguistics and return home to Morocco, where I hoped to work as a college professor. But I met a man who made me reconsider many things, not least of which was my distrust of romance. Alex and I had nothing in common. He was a network engineer, listened to grunge music, liked to spend entire weekends hiking up one mountain or another in southern California; my hobbies were limited to reading. Still, whenever we were together, we lost track of time. I remember driving to a movie in Century City one night and missing the freeway exit twice because we were so engrossed in conversation. After it became clear that our relationship was serious, we realized that one of us had to live in the other’s country. I was young and in love; I made one commitment to my husband and another to his homeland.

I applied for permanent residency, a process that required submitting to a background check, sending in my tax returns, going to interviews, and jumping through various other bureaucratic hoops. One day, a notice arrived from the Department of Justice informing me that I was eligible for naturalization. I spent weeks studying for the citizenship exam. Sometimes Alex helped by quizzing me while we were eating dinner or washing dishes. In the end, I didn’t find the test particularly challenging. Perhaps it was because, long before setting foot in the United States, I had taken courses on its history, studied its literature, and become fluent in its culture. (The familiarity, I realized within days of arriving in California, was not mutual.)

Then the moment came when I had to take the oath. I swore to renounce allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince of whom I had been a subject, to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States, and to bear true faith to the same. “Faith” was an apt word for the leap I was taking: I was placing my trust in America. Alex and I came out of Building Four holding hands and squinting in the sunlight. Later that morning, he dropped me off at my office, and an hour later I was called to a meeting. I opened the conference-room door to find my colleagues—lexicographers and programmers and business analysts—huddled together under red, white, and blue balloons. “Surprise!” they hollered in unison. On the table was a catered lunch of hamburgers, apple pie, and lemonade. As I said, a festive occasion.

A  couple of months after I took the oath, Alex and I went to a mosque on Vermont Avenue to donate blood for a drive organized by the American Red Cross. While I stood on the sidewalk, waiting my turn, I was handed a flyer from a local Muslim organization asking me to vote for George W. Bush in the upcoming election. I can’t recall the specific wording of it, but the basic argument was that Ralph Nader was unelectable and Al Gore didn’t espouse family values. Only Bush cared about the issues that mattered to the community. When Alex came out of the Red Cross truck, I showed him the flyer. “Why him?” I wondered out loud. “I don’t understand.” It did not occur to me then that Bush had made these people—my people—feel seen and heard for the first time.

As a candidate, Bush courted the Arab and Muslim vote. He traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, which has a large Arab-American population, to meet with community leaders, and appointed an Arab-American activist, Khaled Saffuri, as an adviser to his campaign. During one of his televised debates with Al Gore, Bush pledged to end racial profiling by law enforcement and to stop the use of secret evidence in immigration proceedings, two sensitive issues for the Arab and Muslim communities. At the First Union Center in Philadelphia, where the Republican National Convention was held that year, Bush invited Talat Othman, a Palestinian-American businessman, to deliver a Muslim benediction. This marked the first time that an Islamic prayer had been included in a major party’s convention, a novelty that pundits highlighted during television coverage of the event.

Bush’s strategy paid off. He received more than 45,000 votes from various Muslim communities in Florida, a state he carried—thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision to stop the recount—by just 537 votes. Notably, however, black Muslims remained unconvinced by Bush’s claims that he was “a different kind of Republican”—a conservative who would rally “little armies of compassion” to address persistent social problems such as drug abuse or teen pregnancy—and chose Al Gore instead by a wide margin. The “Muslim vote” was not monolithic, it turned out. Many non-black Muslims seemed either unaware of or unconcerned by the racist flyers that were sent in support of Bush’s candidacy during the Republican primary in South Carolina. Openly pursued for the first time by a presidential candidate, and apparently persuaded by Bush’s campaign promises, many Arab Muslims cast their ballots for him.

The day after Bush was sworn in to office, a group of prominent Republicans, including Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, met with representatives from the Arab and Muslim communities to discuss racial profiling. To remind Bush of his campaign commitments to them, Arab and Muslim leaders asked to meet with him directly. The appointment, much discussed and much delayed, was finally scheduled for 3:30 pm on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

The meeting never took place. That morning, my phone rang a little before 6:00 am. It was my brother-in-law, his voice filled with urgency, telling me to turn on the television—something terrible was happening. I stumbled over to the living room and turned on the set in time to see thick plumes of black smoke billowing from the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and people jumping from the windows. At least, that is how I remember the moment. It seems to me now that I could have read about the falling bodies later in a newspaper or a magazine. Yet my memory insists on the detail, as though it had been necessary for me to see the individuals in order to apprehend the full scale of the tragedy.

On the way to work that morning, I was waiting at a red light when I saw a man in a T-shirt and jeans take his daughter’s hand as they stepped off the curb to cross the street. It was such a small, ordinary gesture—the kind that parents everywhere make multiple times a day. Three hours earlier and three thousand miles away, at an intersection somewhere in New York, another man or woman had done the same. Mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers had sat down to breakfast, finished their coffees, and put on their shoes. I love you, they said. Have a great day. Don’t forget to pick up the dry cleaning. Then, one by one, they left home and never came back.

The shock and grief of that day became intertwined with the fear and rejection I felt soon after. I remember pressing a software engineer on my team about meeting a project deadline, and his response was, “What are you going to do? Shoot me? Isn’t that how you people solve things?” Only a year earlier, this same co-worker had shared a slice of citizenship apple pie with me. I remember being followed around a home-improvement store while I shopped for flashlights and extension cords. “What do you need all these cables for?” the clerk asked me at checkout. I remember the pat-downs I received every time I went through airport security. Twice I was asked by border agents how much cattle my husband had had to trade for me.

Because I have light skin, these stories rank as inconveniences compared with those of people who are more visibly non-white or more conspicuously Muslim. Places of worship, community centers, and businesses were burned down or vandalized; men were killed or assaulted; women were stripped of their head scarves; and children were taunted at school. In the months following 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims increased more than ten fold. Sikh men, often mistaken for Muslims because of the turbans they wear, were also frequent targets.

George W. Bush received a lot of credit in the press for visiting a mosque six days after the attacks and for proclaiming that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” but speaking to a joint session of Congress on September 20, he began to strike a different tone. He announced that he was launching the war on terror, which would begin with an assault on Al Qaeda but would not end “until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated,” an ambition so vast it seemed impossible to shape into concrete, achievable policy. Then he warned that every nation had a decision to make: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

Nearly twenty years have passed since that speech. I am no longer a starry-eyed bride, but maturity has its advantages: I can see better now what I had perceived only dimly back then. Being a citizen of the United States, I had thought, meant being an equal member of the American family—a spirited group of people of different races, origins, and creeds, bound together by common ideals. But as time went by, the contradictions between doctrine and reality became harder to ignore. While my life in this country is for the most part happy and fulfilling, it has never been entirely secure or comfortable. Certain facts stand in the way, facts that make me a conditional citizen. My relationship to the state—observed through exposure to its policies and encounters with its representatives—is affected in all sorts of ways by my being an immigrant, a woman, an Arab, and a Muslim.

Millions of people in this country live with the terrible reality that their status is at least partly determined by the color of their skin, the nature of their creed, their gender identity, or their national origin. American citizenship was created in the image of the men who wrote the nation’s founding laws: naturalization was reserved for “free white persons,” and some rights fundamental to citizenship—such as the right to vote—were further restricted to white, male landowners. Rich white men were to be governed by consent, and everyone else was to be governed by force. It took centuries of struggle, some of it violent and bloody, for this philosophy to be disrupted, but it has not yet been fully dismantled. The groups that have been historically denied the rights and privileges of citizenship in the United States are still struggling to achieve equal rights, equal access to the vote, and an equal sense of belonging to the American family. Conditional citizenship manifests itself in many different ways, some plain and others subtle, and with varying degrees of violence.

Conditional citizens are people whose rights the state finds expendable in the pursuit of white supremacy. Between 1778 and 1871, the U.S. government signed hundreds of treaties with indigenous tribes, treaties that were meant to last, in James Monroe’s words, “as long as water flows, or grass grows upon the earth, or the sun rises to show your pathway.” But these agreements were summarily abrogated whenever the government decided it wanted indigenous land for gold, oil, or settlement—all of which, by and large, profited white citizens or white immigrants. As recently as three years ago, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe fought to stop the building of an oil pipeline that could pollute water on its reservation, in violation of two treaties that guaranteed it sovereignty over natural resources. Native communities across the United States still face land loss and a slew of challenges to their individual and collective rights.

Conditional citizens are policed and punished more harshly than others by the state. African Americans are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white people. The high level of incarceration among non-whites derives principally from the so-called war on drugs, which was launched by Richard Nixon in 1971 and escalated by successive presidents. Although whites and non-whites use drugs at roughly the same rates, the criminalization of drug use among non-whites has resulted in the creation of the largest prison system in the world. In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander showed persuasively that mass incarceration in America functions as a “system of social control.” This race-based punitive system is so pervasive that policing begins in childhood. A black child who gets in trouble at school is more likely to be suspended than a white child.

Conditional citizens are not guaranteed the same electoral representation as others. Historically, the right to vote in the United States has been restricted in many different ways, with race, class, gender, and religion serving as constraints on suffrage. While voting rights have been at times expanded, for example with the passage of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, new restrictions have also been imposed, such as literacy tests, poll taxes, or the requirement of assimilation into white society. Today, voting rights are still being contested, meaning that the fruits of democracy are not equally available to all. The voter-ID laws that have been passed in more than a dozen states over the past two decades have disproportionately affected black, Hispanic, and indigenous voters, resulting in flagrant voter suppression. Four years ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that North Carolina’s voter-ID law was designed to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Yet such laws continue to be passed in state legislatures.

Conditional citizens are surveilled more closely by the state. I don’t just mean the additional scrutiny that some people are subjected to at ports of entry at the discretion of Customs and Border Protection officers, but specific surveillance programs aimed at entire populations of unsuspecting citizens. In 2002, the New York Police Department established a secret office, given the innocuous-seeming name the Demographics Unit, with the sole purpose of spying on Muslims in the city and surrounding suburbs. The unit placed informants in mosques, infiltrated student groups, eavesdropped on customers at Muslim-owned businesses, gained access to private homes by means of subterfuge, and created vast databases of information. But in six years of warrantless surveillance—and violation of the civil rights of New York Muslims—the unit did not generate a single lead.

In short, conditional citizens are Americans who cannot enjoy the full rights, liberties, and protections of citizenship because of arbitrary markers of identity. Their race, ethnicity, gender, and national origin—that is to say, features over which they have no control—largely determine whether they will be able to vote, have freedom of movement, or remain safe from unreasonable searches. To say that millions of people in the United States are conditional citizens is not to say that their experiences with discrimination or exclusion are identical; it is merely to observe the ways in which their rights are curtailed or violated, with the result that a caste system is maintained, keeping the modern equivalent of white, male landowners at the top of the social hierarchy.

The existing limitations of citizenship stand in sharp contrast to the civic ideals that Americans are taught. Every morning in this country, schoolchildren recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which promises them one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Then they grow up to find that, depending on the lottery of their birth, the state might deny them equal rights or an equal sense of belonging in the community. Conditional citizens are people who know what it is like for their country to embrace them with one arm and push them away with the other.

One feature of conditional citizenship is the pressure to demonstrate one’s loyalty. Barack Obama had to prove his Americanness by releasing his birth certificate and publicly performing his Christianity. He always went to great lengths to show his love—and gratitude—for the United States. “In no other country on earth is my story even possible,” Obama often said. But at no point during the last presidential campaign did Donald Trump have his Americanness called into question, even after he called America “foolish,” “dumb,” and “a laughingstock.” The United States was “going to hell,” he said; it looked “like a third world country”; and, frankly, it was “an embarrassment.” He could say all this and more because he enjoys the full rights of citizenship.

After he became president, Trump began implementing his campaign promises, beginning with an immigration and travel ban on Muslims. The executive order faced immediate and successful challenges in federal courts because it was so plainly inconsistent with the establishment clause of the First Amendment. While legal appeals were still in progress, Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s advisers, admitted in a Fox News interview that Trump had called him and said, “Show me the right way to do it legally.” It would take the president a few months and two revisions in order to figure this out, but in September 2017 he signed a proclamation that banned North Koreans and Venezuelan government officials from entering the United States, along with all nationals of Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

This was a deceitful move, because the government of North Korea already prevents its people from leaving their homeland and only about forty Venezuelan officials visit the United States each year. By contrast, the State Department issued well over seventy thousand visas in 2016 to nationals of the majority-Muslim countries on the list. But the deception provided sufficient cover for the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. In an opinion written by John Roberts, the court ruled that the president’s well-documented animus toward Muslims was “extrinsic” to the issue and that the ban was “facially neutral toward religion.” With this precedent, the president can add more Muslim countries to the list without serious risk of constitutional challenge.

The immigration ban has now been extended to Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, and Tanzania. Because it applies only to foreigners, and despite initial opposition from liberals and progressives, it has largely faded from the news. But in reality, the ban affects millions of Americans as well. An Iranian American in Los Angeles can no longer sponsor his mother for a visa, but a German American can. A Libyan American in Ann Arbor can no longer receive a visit from her grandfather, but an Italian American can. A Yemeni American in New York can no longer bring a relative to the city for medical treatment, but a Portuguese American can. In other words, what Trump did—with direct approval from the Supreme Court—was to codify American Muslims’ conditional citizenship into law.

The Fairplex, where I took the oath of allegiance, once served a different purpose. During the Second World War, it operated as an assembly center for Japanese Americans—citizens whom the state had designated a danger to national defense through an executive order. Beginning on May 9, 1942, Japanese families from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Clara counties were told to report to the Fairplex, a directive that the Los Angeles Times covered in a brief article the next day with the headline: aliens to go to pomona. There, they were housed in barracks hastily built by the Army Corps of Engineers, forced to live under curfew, and watched over by a team of white policemen. That August, the families were taken by train to the Heart Mountain concentration camp, in Wyoming, where they were held without charge until the end of the war.

The row of barracks at the Fairplex is now a parking lot. I don’t think the erasure is accidental. Over the past twenty years, I have come to understand that there is nothing more American than forgetting the past. It is through the obliteration of memory, an obliteration perpetrated with great deliberateness by the state, that American identity is fashioned. But conditional citizens insist on remembering. In August 2016, a group of Japanese Americans convinced the Fairplex to install a brass plaque at the site of the internment. It reads: may such injustice and suffering never recur.

’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine,Hearts and Minds,” appeared in the February 2018 issue. This essay is taken from her newest book, Conditional Citizens, which will be published this month by Pantheon.

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