I WAS COVERING the 2016 presidential election at CNN for more than a year when I made a confession to my husband: I felt a pang of sadness whenever I heard the national anthem at a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton rally.
Everyone around me would stand up and put their right hand over their heart. I wanted to do it too – I love the Star Spangled Banner – but I didn’t think I had the right because I was not an American.
When I shared this with my husband, feeling silly as I got emotional, he told me something wonderful – that it was absolutely OK for me to do this if I wanted to.
“There’s no rule that says you can’t. All it means is that you love this country,” he said.
MENSAH KODUAH, 54, is from Ghana. He drives a taxi and has lived in the United States for 20 years. Pamela Aquino, 28, was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated here when she was a little girl. Chandra and Amara Nandikolla are from India and live in the Bronx – he is a software engineer at a bank and she is a physician in training.
Together, we were among the 296 immigrants from 53 countries who became American citizens on Ellis Island last Friday.
As I recited the Oath of Allegiance with my right hand raised in the air, the historical significance of where I stood was overwhelming. An estimated 12 million immigrants came to America through this gateway – some of the benches we were sitting on were used by the immigrants who came to New York harbor on ships.
I owe my new citizenship to at least several of those people. One of my husband’s great-grandmothers, Brana Frimet, sailed to Ellis Island from Antwerp in the 1920s. (Some of his other relatives have been harder to track down because we believe their Yiddish names were at some point Anglicized.)
The process of becoming a citizen can feel complex, time-consuming and expensive for many immigrants. For me, it has also coincided with a wild presidential election – one that I have covered for the last 16 months as a political reporter for CNN.
Despite the arduous process, there has been an uptick this year in people applying for US citizenship, and immigration experts say many are motivated by the desire to vote in November. And so I found myself the subject of one of the most hotly debated political issues this cycle: immigration.
I vividly remember an exchange I had at a Trump campaign rally in Iowa last fall. I approached a man and asked who he was voting for, and he responded that he was leaning toward Trump because he was tired of the “new Americans” coming into the country.
“The people that are coming in here from China, Indonesia and all of them countries, they’re getting pregnant and coming here and having babies,” the man told me. “They get everything and the people that were born here can’t get everything.”
He said he didn’t mean to offend me.
THE MAN at that Trump rally was right: I am a “new American.” In fact, I am the first person in my family to become an US citizen.
But he was wrong if he assumed that my family had somehow tried to game the system.
Like most Koreans of their generation, my parents grew up poor after the Korean War. My father fiercely believed as a young man that the United States was the greatest country on earth. After my brother and I were born, he became obsessed with finding a way to give us an American education.
When he saw a professional opening in Hong Kong, he jumped on the opportunity, moving my family away from Korea when I was seven. My brother and I enrolled in an American school, where we learned English and adapted to our new surroundings. We had privileged childhoods.
I decided to move to the U.S. to attend boarding school in 11th grade. I never left, and painfully, that means I haven’t lived in the same country as my parents in 13 years.
Although most people assume that I am American, I’ve faced constant reminders that I am not from here.
Sometimes it’s trivial things like not knowing certain cultural references or English idioms (my colleagues recently taught me the meaning of “worth dying on a hill,” and I fully intend to overuse it.)
At other times, it’s feeling left out or lonely. I hate that I am 29 and I’ve never voted. I envy people who are called for jury duty, and it’s gotten harder as I’ve gotten older to be so far away from my parents.
I’ve also experienced outright rejection: After graduating from Georgetown, I was offered an entry-level job in journalism, but when the employer found out I was on a visa, they took back the offer. I was devastated.
Covering this election has at times exacerbated this nagging feeling that I don’t fully belong. The campaign has taken me to towns and neighborhoods where I felt certain that I was the only non-white person, and where the first question I am most often asked is where I am from.
When a stranger yells at me: “Konichiwa” or “Ni hao,” I never know how to respond.
Meeting my husband has made me both more Korean and more American.
He is so interested in my Korean heritage and constantly reminds me that the further away I am from my family, the more important it is for me to embrace my roots. He is delighted to answer my never-ending questions about U.S. history and culture.
Long before the citizenship ceremony, he started to call me his “American girl” – he said I couldn’t be more patriotic.
AS I’VE TRAVELED the country during this election, I’ve encountered countless voters who are turned off and uninspired. That’s not surprising: polls show that either Trump and Clinton would assume the presidency with historically high unpopularity ratings.
But if so much of the national coverage has focused on the negativity, insults and controversies, there is also the less told story of immigrants inspired by this election. They include long-time permanent residents who are applying for citizenship so that they can vote in a US election for the first time.
Koduah, the taxi driver from Ghana I met on Ellis Island last week, told me this year’s election is what persuaded him to finally apply for citizenship.
“I want to be part of the American fabric,” Koduah said. At first, he said he preferred not to share who he was voting for. But as we continued to chat, Koduah smiled widely and blurted out: “By the way – I’ll vote for Hillary.”
The Nandikollas, the couple from India, told me they will be casting their first ballots for different nominees.
Chandra said he will vote for Trump because he believes the Republican nominee is a “very strong” leader. His wife, Amara, joked that she didn’t want to get into an argument. But on a more serious note, she said she has been taken aback by Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and will support Clinton because she feels the Democratic nominee is more capable than Trump.
But Nandikollas said they felt the same way about becoming an American.
“I’m so grateful to this country,” Chandra said. “Now I want to give it back to this country.”
According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, more than 38,000 people became naturalized citizens last week. Immigration experts say they’ve seen an increase in citizenship applications this year compared to 2015.
While that is not an unusual phenomenon in an election year, according to USCIS data analyzed by the National Immigration Forum, applications are up about 8.4% in 2016 compared to 2012.
Ali Noorani, the group’s executive director, said they have found that the overwhelming majority of eligible green card holders decide to apply for citizenship once they are educated about the benefits of becoming a citizen.
“We found that to be a function of two things: they wanted to make sure that their voices were heard at the ballot box this year and second, they understood there are certain privileges and protections that came with U.S. citizenship,” Noorani said. “Access to better jobs, being able to travel freely – those are frankly nuts and bolts opportunities that U.S. citizens take for granted.”
LAST FRIDAY was one of the most joyous days of my life.
Inside the main hall on Ellis Island, a woman sang the national anthem and I proudly placed my hand over my heart.
After I recited the Oath of Allegiance, these were the first words I heard as an American citizen from Robert Katzmann, the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
“My fellow citizens. How good it is to say that,” Katzmann told us. “Our country, this great country, is even stronger, even greater than it was moments ago, because you are now citizens.”