At the end of 2016, my wife of 43 years, Amalia and I both took the final step of becoming Americans – the citizenship oath. For me, it had been 44 years in the making. Standing with Amalia and all the other new Americans that day, I felt like a different person with more liberty than I had before. I’ve called the U.S. my home for many years, but citizenship – and knowing that all the rights I have as a citizen can never be taken away – makes me feel truly American.
I moved to Houston from San Fernando, Mexico in October 1972, at 20 years old, to live with my parents and two sisters who were already making a life here. I was excited to make the move and decided to get my green card in hopes of finding better job opportunities in the U.S.
Four years later, Amalia and I got married in Mexico where she was still living with her own family. It was one of the happiest days of my life, and I wanted nothing more than to bring Amalia back with me to Houston that very day. Of course, that’s not how it worked out. Shortly after I petitioned for her to join me in Texas, USCIS had updated its permanent resident application and failed to notify us about re-filing with the new form. I spent the first eight years of our lives as a married couple traveling back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. every two weeks just to see Amalia. It was not only tiring, but frustrating. A family member who lived in Monterrey, Mexico saw how hard it was for us to live apart from each other and went to the U.S. Consulate to check for updates on our case. Only then did we learn about re-filing. Once we found out, I hired a lawyer and Amalia was in the U.S. in less than a year. Nearly a decade had passed before she finally stepped foot on American soil as a lawful permanent resident herself. It was a big relief to finally have her with me in the U.S. The wait was worth it.
Amalia and I still talk about how grateful we are to be here. Living in the U.S. has opened up opportunities that were not available to us in Mexico. Here we have better access to good jobs that pay us well for our work. We got jobs with good benefits that motivated us to work hard to build a better life for ourselves and our families. We never took those opportunities and jobs for granted. In fact, for more than 40 years we were so absorbed in our careers that it never even crossed our minds to naturalize. We eventually started exploring the idea after a health insurance agent we were meeting with encouraged us to apply for citizenship. They put us in contact with Bonding Against Adversity, a local nonprofit that offers free citizenship classes to permanent residents.
Since we were semi-retired and had time to attend Bonding’s classes, we signed up for them in both Spanish and English and enjoyed learning alongside other aspiring citizens. The classes taught us a lot about the benefits of citizenship, one of the biggest ones being the ability to vote. It was an added bonus that Tom, a volunteer with Bonding, spent two hours during each session training us on how to fill out the N-400 application. By the time we filed our applications in early 2016 we were experts on the entire naturalization process and wanted to use the knowledge we gained to help other immigrants in our community. It only made sense to sign up as volunteers with Bonding.
Now, Amalia and I volunteer at every citizenship workshop Bonding holds. It’s so rewarding to help other aspiring citizens fill out their applications. Amalia still gets to use all her expert knowledge about the process, too, by teaching citizenship classes to people who qualify to take the test in Spanish. Since we are both semi-retired we dedicate as much time as we can to Bonding. To us, there is nothing more fulfilling than helping others take the step to becoming U.S. citizens.
We are so happy with our lives as new Americans that we regularly encourage our friends and family to begin the citizenship process too. We do it because we know firsthand the difference between having a green card and having citizenship. Amalia and I are experiencing the many benefits of citizenship already – specifically the right to vote, travel freely and become dual citizens.
Even though our loved ones are sometimes hesitant to naturalize, the same thing that made citizenship so important to me and Amalia is what draws them in: the fact that the rights of U.S. citizens can never be taken away. The security that comes with citizenship has already motivated three of our family members to apply. And thanks to our training from Bonding, we were able to help them fill out their applications and prep for the civics test. Soon they, too, will take the oath to citizenship and start their lives as new Americans. Just like the moment itself, I can’t explain in words how wonderful it feels to be a part of helping them get there.
By Eduardo Bejarano