What Do I Gain From Citizenship—and What Do I Lose?
There are rules to who gets to live the American dream, and who doesn’t.
I stayed silent. After all, I was an independent twenty-five-year-old woman! I had my pride. How could I go back penniless after living in America’s streets paved with gold?
After his death, I switched to calling on Saturdays, unable to face the lacuna of his voice. Now, I talk to my mother every other day, sometimes twice a day. Sometimes she remembers that we spoke in the morning, sometimes she remembers what we spoke about.
On a Friday in 2011, I stood in City Hall, with my brother, my best friend (another immigrant like me), and my partner and his family, for a ceremony that took less than three minutes. We were married; all I wanted was to go home and sleep away the anguish of my father’s absence.
Within the year, my green card arrived. It had taken me twelve years, my father’s death, and my subsequent marriage, to become a permanent resident.
Now, in my twentieth year in the US, my father has been dead eight years. Three months ago, my mother, who still lives in Hyderabad, was diagnosed with an illness from which she will never recover. If I want to bring her here, I must become a citizen. But do I want to?
Perhaps my greatest privilege is that I’ve been able to commit to my search—for myself, for what I craved and feared: In 2014, I quit my job to pursue an MFA in creative writing, to write the stories I want.
This pursuit for passions—not for a better life or to avert poverty, nor to provide for family, nor, well, to live—underpins the American dream. What the dream-narrative leaves out is that even embarking on its pursuit requires privileges. When Trump upholds immigration as a privilege, he is upholding privilege as a pre-existing condition, and with it, the bedrock of privilege—its invisibility.
Every few phone calls, I ask my mother if she’ll come to live with me in the US. She never says no. Instead, she says things like: “You know I can’t take the cold, even in the summer I use a blanket.” “If you had kids, I would come right away. But now, what will I do?” “If I didn’t have my school,” (she’s been running a school for underprivileged children for twenty-five years), “I’d go absolutely bonkers.”
The day after Trump’s election in 2016, I drove a friend, an Indian woman visiting me in Indiana, to a ‘quaint’ touristy town nearby. I was conscious of leaving the progressive college-town bubble I lived in, of us being brown, of Indiana being a red state. I say “conscious of.” I mean, “terrified.”
Now, two years into this administration, I’m more numb than afraid. Have I become inured to the constant attacks? Or does my privilege protect me from the impact of Trump’s policies? I know what’s real as a wound to me, is my mother’s health, my mortgage, the fear that without citizenship, I might lose the people I love, the place I call home, my personhood.
Is it as simple as taking a test, making a pledge, replacing my dark blue Indian passport with another dark blue passport, wedging it into the maroon case as if it’s always been there?
My immigration has been one of choice, self-determination, of debt, and of privilege. Yet before I fill out the application for citizenship, fear reveals what is as invisible as privilege: that there is a point where self-determination confronts power and authority. Ask anyone who applies for a credit card, or a home loan, or a job. Ask most poor, and/or Black or immigrant folk. Exercising your choice doesn’t always result in getting what you want. This is the unspoken fallacy that determines who lives the American dream, and who doesn’t.
Sometimes I wish for an uncontrollable outside event, the hand of God, to choose for me. Sometimes I want to ask strangers, like you, to decide: Should I—an immigrant to, a writer in, and a critic of the United States—apply for citizenship?
Bix Gabriel is a writer, teacher of creative writing, editor at The Offing magazine, 2021 Periplus Fellow, co-founder of TakeTwo Services, occasional Tweeter, and seeker of the perfect jalebi.
She has a M.F.A in fiction from Indiana University-Bloomington, and her writing appears in the anthology A Map is Only One Story, on Longleaf Review, Catapult, Guernica, and Electric Literature, among others. Her debut novel, Archives of Amnesia, was a finalist for the 2021 PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
She was born in Hyderabad, India, and lives in Queens, NY.