Becoming an American

I FINALLY filed my application to be naturalized as an American. It only took me over 20 years…
My first trip to America was with my mom and two siblings in 1981. I was 15 years old and had just graduated from high school.  The trip was supposed to be a month-long vacation to see Disneyland and Universal Studios, with a possible side trip to Canada to visit relatives.  I was so excited.
At that time, I was very idealistic.  Attending Catholic schools during the martial law era had a way of instilling a deep love for God and country, as well as a strong sense of giving service to others. I had solid goals and made life-long plans to learn, acquire skills, and give back to my motherland – plans that were already set in motion.  The trip fit perfectly.
Little did I know that my mom had her own plans.  As soon as we boarded the plane, she started chatting with other passengers about the best colleges in California.  When we landed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), she went straight to the information booth to ask for directions to universities.  We made it to Disneyland and all major attractions, but in a circuitous route through UCLA, USC, LMU, CSULB, UCI, CSUDH, CSUN, and many more.  My heart was heavy each time we entered a college/university campus, fearing that my life plan would go awry.  My age and lack of SAT/TOEFL exams became a huge deterrent for acceptance into universities and my greatest ammunition against changes to my life plan. But my mom had her mind set on giving me an American education.  Two months later, I was back in Southern California as a foreign student.  My first lesson was on adaptation.
It took another twelve years before I became a legal permanent resident, and only because I got married and it was necessary for my husband to maintain his security clearance.  The marriage ended before I became eligible for naturalization; after we divorced, becoming a citizen was unnecessary.  In my heart, I was still a Filipino and renouncing my allegiance to the Philippines did not feel right.
Although there were opportunities for me to move back to the Philippines, I could not.  My daughter was born here and I could not uproot her.  Plus I could not renege on my responsibilities at work.  Over time, I remarried and settled into the American way of life.  I did not have to think about my immigration status except when returning from intermittent trips abroad…until last year.
Out of curiosity, I attended a free naturalization workshop, one of many given at local public libraries as part of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s immigration initiative. By a quirk of fate, a few months later, I became the Executive Director of the Filipino American Service Group, Inc. (FASGI), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides assistance with naturalization applications.  These events gave me the opportunity to ask people why they want to become American citizens.  Most of the responses center on three benefits:  (1) voting rights; (2) family reunification – so that they can petition their family members to be with them; and (3) financial/professional advancement – so that they can be eligible for federal jobs.
Talking to naturalization applicants on an almost daily basis for the past year has made me reassess my reasons for holding back.  I was born in the Philippines, but America is where I found myself – where I learned, grew up, fell in love, gave birth to my daughter, gained hope in government, renewed my spirituality, and realized my goal to serve.  After living here for 35 years, my trips to the Philippines have ceased to feel like “coming home” because a lot has changed and become unfamiliar.  Los Angeles has become the true home where I have lived the greater part of my life.
When the time came, it felt very right to sign the N400 Application for Naturalization. On April 14, when I heard the “Star Spangled Banner” at Mayor Garcetti’s State of the City Address, the experience was profoundly moving.
If you are like me and live in America as a legal permanent resident but have dilly-dallied with naturalization, I urge you to act now.  Even if you have no family members to petition or a federal job to pursue, please consider your opportunity to vote.   American rules and regulations do affect your life, and you must claim the chance to have your say.
If you need assistance in filing your application or have any questions about naturalization, please feel free to call the Filipino American Service Group, Inc. (FASGI) at (213) 487-9804. We are ready to help you.  Information may also be obtained through the USCIS website at www.uscis.gov or at any Los Angeles public library.
Yey Coronel is the Executive Director of Filipino American Service Group, Inc. (FASGI), a 501(c)(3) organization in Historic Filipinotown that operates a homeless facility and implements programs on naturalization, rider relief, health and wellness, community learning garden, and senior activities. She was featured by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at his recent State of the City Address on April 14, 2016. Yey previously worked for the City of Los Angeles as Assistant Deputy Mayor for Mayor Richard Riordan and Director of Community Development for Mayor James Hahn.

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