CLEARING OUT the basement of my mother's house, I come across a manila envelope. It is labeled "Dokymenty" (documents).
there's a plastic-coated diver's license-type card, with a photo
of my older sister, at about 9 months old, dressed in a fuzzy jumpsuit
with bunny ears. "Resident Alien" is stamped beneath the photo. The document is an alien
registration card (the equivalent of today's
card) issued when my family arrived in this country in 1951.
In my family, I will always be the Amerikanka,
the one who was born here.
My parents were expatriates who had to flee their country,
the Communist occupation of their homeland.
It was the landed gentry,
the intelligentsia, the religious leaders the Communists
My family was admitted under the Displaced Persons Act after World War II. For my
parents, America was a welcoming place. It was not only a place of opportunity,
but a place of refuge.
"Give me your tired, your poor ... Send
these, the homeless, the
to me," was inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
I come across two other yellowing
documents related to my
family's' immigration: a typed application with a photo attached,
their intent to stay, filed 17 days after I was born. And
the final citizenship certificate, a grand document that looks
like a cross between an enormous dollar bill and a graduation diploma. Those
were the only papers required, and the application procedure was simple. I remember my
parents heading downtown and back, pleased that they had the right to vote,
which they exercised for the rest of their
These days, our nation's attitude toward
immigrants has changed. They are again viewed with suspicion; their
applications are treated with
indifference. They have to undergo FBI checks, and because immigration
procedures are not clear, they often must turn to lawyers for help. (In fact, a federal appeals
court ruled last month that some forms were so obscure and confusing that even
the Immigration and
Service agents who administer them are unable to explain them.)
There is a backlog of more than 2 million immigrants
waiting to become
citizens - the largest since the federal government started keeping records at the turn
of the century. Processing an application, particularly in large cities, can take as long
as five years.
has allocated funds to automate the system, to hire more workers
and expedite the process. But the government's commitment is questionable.
After all, new applicants reportedly face an additional one-year
delay, because employees have been reassigned to reduce the enormous
backlog in citizenship applications.
Clearly, America's once-welcoming beacon has dimmed. And its golden doors are
being slammed shut.