Delayed Appreciation: My Naturalization Story

This blog post was originally published on Sept. 13, 2016, when Williams managed CLINIC’s state-level immigration policy portfolio. Williams is now a staff attorney with CLINIC’s Religious Immigration Services.

I was born in Monrovia, Liberia where I grew up with my mother and older brother. My father lived in the United States. Growing up, I played along the beautiful shores of the Atlantic Ocean just a couple of miles from home. I ate my favorite vegetables during the rainy season, like cabbage and cassava; and the dry season brought me my favorite tropical fruits, like paw paw and mangoes. On weekends, my mother took us to visit my grandparents in Harbel, Margibi, and to church for youth activities.

My mother worked for the United Nations in Liberia, and education was very important to her. We often talked about my future plans. When I was really young, I wanted to be an executive secretary like my mother. Then, when I was eight, I watched the 1984 Karate Kid movie and realized my true calling was to be a professional karate fighter. I spent nearly every day reenacting scenes from the movie and challenging my brother to spar with me, with his necktie tied across my forehead. My karate dreams lasted until about high school, then I set my eyes on becoming a doctor.

During my senior year of high school, my mother told me we were moving to the United States. As you can imagine, it was quite overwhelming for a teenager to hear that she would be leaving everything she knew to go to a strange place and start life anew. My friends and family who lived in the United States tried to help me see the great opportunities that waited for me in the United States, but I certainly did not want to think about any of that. I was concerned that I would be leaving my homeland and my culture, and I was afraid to walk away from my friends and the life I knew.

We met my father in Bensalem, Pa., a few days after Christmas, and boy was I shocked by the cold winter air! I was used to only seeing ice in my freezer, but here, I was walking on ice and trying not to fall. It did not take long for life to get back to normal. I graduated high school in 2004 and headed off to college. I had no idea what my immigration status was and did not care to know. My family, or friends, and I did not talk about immigration issues.

I first learned of my lawful permanent resident status when I applied for my first part-time job as a college student. My father gave me my “green card” to show to my new manager. It was my first time seeing one and I wondered why it was called a green card when, at the time, there was nothing green about it.

When I became eligible to naturalize a few years later, my parents encouraged me to apply. I filled out the naturalization application with ease. A few weeks later, I went for my biometrics appointment and received the civic test materials for my interview. I did not open the study booklet until the day before my interview. I read for a couple of hours and was confident that I would do well on the test. At the time, I lived in Detroit. I checked-in at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, office about 45 minutes before my interview. As I waited to be called nerves set in. I was anxious about being in a federal building knowing my every move was being monitored by security cameras and federal agents. I was there to provide information about myself, my family and explain why I wanted to become a U.S. citizen, but the uncertainty ate away at me. What if I forget my mother’s date of birth or the address where I lived five years ago, I wondered. What will happen to me? I reviewed my copy of the application nearly 10 times because I did not want to give any inconsistent information to the officer.

Finally, my name was called. I looked up to find an immigration officer standing in the doorway with a folder in her hand. I walked across the waiting room rehearsing my full name and address in my head. She swore me in, then reviewed my driver’s license, Liberian passport and asked my full name and birth date. She asked me a few other questions about my family history, places of employment and then moved on to the civic test. Of the seven questions she asked, I answered six of them correctly. When she finally said, “Congratulations on passing the civic test. I will recommend your case for approval,” I was filled with relief. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. A few days later I received a letter in the mail instructing me to go to the federal courthouse in Detroit to be sworn in as a citizen.

On Jan. 4, 2010, I became a U.S. citizen. The interesting thing was that I was completely oblivious to the fact that I had just experienced one of the greatest privileges in my life – a privilege so many immigrants make life-altering sacrifices for. I was more excited about the fact that I could use my U.S. passport to visit several countries without needing a visa.

Around this time, I decided that I was not interested in medicine, and my karate training had ended years before. So, I set out to become a lawyer. Two years into law school I volunteered at my school’s immigration outreach program where I completed intake forms and helped applicants prepare for their naturalization test. One day, I asked an applicant why she wanted to be a U.S. citizen and she told me her story. She had lived in the United States for years without documentation and because of that she could not travel home to see her sick mother. She found it very difficult to make enough money to support herself and her family in her home country and feared she would get caught by immigration authorities and be deported. Years later, she met her husband and through him she was able to obtain lawful permanent status. She was applying for citizenship and had plans to bring her mother to the U.S. for adequate medical care.

Her story shocked me and made me wonder how many people had similar stories. I realized that I had not taken time to appreciate what I had. I lived in a household of immigrants where my parents traveled in and out of the country when they wanted to. I went to college, obtained a driver’s license and opened a bank account with no trouble. Here we were — both immigrants sitting with very different stories — her story being more challenging than mine, and I did nothing spectacular to deserve mine. It took someone else’s immigration experience to get me to appreciate the value of my naturalization.

After law school, I was blessed to get a job at a law firm where I practiced immigration law full time. I felt obligated to help my clients seek legal status because they deserved to live freely and with dignity just like me. I joined CLINIC with the goal of providing my services to immigrants on a much larger scale. I am grateful to be at a place where my work can enable religious workers to serve their communities and provide spiritual guidance and support to parishioners in such challenging times.