Why I Naturalized

Next month will represent the 25th anniversary of when I arrived in the USA, for good, as it would turn out.

I’d lived here before, mind you:  My family had moved from Canada to the USA while I was growing up, spending about 4 years here, although we moved back to Canada a year before I graduated from high school.  After staying in Canada for university, in September 1992 I came back to the USA on a student visa, to enroll in graduate school.  It was pretty common at that time for the best Canadian university graduates seeking PhDs to go south of the border for their doctoral studies.   While some of my fellow Canadians came south with clear intentions to return to Canada after their degree, my plans were more ambiguous.  Having lived in the USA previously, I was more open than most Canadians to staying here permanently, but I could certainly have imagined going back to Canada.

But then, while in graduate school, I met an American woman… (cue The Guess Who, or perhaps Lenny Kravitz!)  When we’d each reached the point where we were growing jaded with our doctoral program and sought to do something different with our lives, our relationship gave me a reason to want to stay in the USA and build my life here, rather than go home.  And so in 1996 I found an entry-level actuarial position in Chicago, returning to Canada briefly so I could re-enter the USA on a TN visa.  Shortly thereafter I convinced my employer to sponsor me first for an H-1B visa (back before those visas became exploited by the outsourcing firms), and ultimately for my green card.  Delays in immigration processing after 9/11 slowed matters down, to be sure, but by 2005 I was a permanent resident of the USA.  (Along the way I did marry the American woman, but that didn’t actually have beneficial immigration consequences for me: Marrying her when I did would simply have entitled me to join the green card queue in the very same place that I was already at thanks to my employer’s efforts.)

When I got my green card, I wasn’t sure if I would ever take the next step and seek to become an American citizen through naturalization.  The question wasn’t yet ripe, mind you:  A new permanent resident doesn’t become eligible for citizenship until 5 years have passed.  So when 2010 rolled around, I finally had a decision to make:  Should I naturalize?

It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, being proud of my Canadian heritage.  Having said that, in many respects it felt as though whether or not I was an American citizen would be a distinction without a difference, in that changing from a green card holder to a citizen wouldn’t have much immediate impact on my day-to-day life.  For example, nothing about my income tax situation would change if I were to become an American citizen; nor would becoming an American citizen have any impact on such longer-term issues as my eligibility for Social Security or Medicare.

In the end I decided I would go ahead and naturalize, which I did in early 2011.  In my thought process at the time I identified 6 reasons why I felt becoming an American citizen was the appropriate thing to do.

Reason #6 was estate taxes.  It is widely known that there is an unlimited spousal deduction to estate taxes, so that when one spouse dies the surviving spouse can inherit everything without worrying about potential estate tax.  However, it is perhaps less well-known that this deduction only applies if the surviving spouse is a citizen.   As such, naturalizing would insulate me from a potential tax exposure, albeit one that would only occur in the unlikely parlay that not only my wife died before me, but also our financial situation had somehow improved to the point where estate taxes were potentially relevant.  While that parlay seemed remote, it was a tally for the “yes naturalize” column.

Reason #5 related to potential eldercare issues.   Like many only children, I can imagine that someday one of my parents might need to come live with me – particularly with my maternal line being so long-lived (my grandmother is still doing great at 97; her mother was still living alone and smoking a pack a day when she passed at 97; and her mother lived to be 105).   However, with my parents being in Canada and me being in the USA, it’s not so simple.  As a citizen I would have some ability to sponsor a parent into the US to live with me, whereas as a permanent resident I would not.

Reason #4 was more ephemeral:  recognizing the reality of my life.  Regardless of which country I might cheer for at the Olympics, for all intents and purposes by 2010 I’d irrevocably thrown my lot in with the United States:  my professional specialty (health insurance) only exists in the USA, my children are Americans, I’d married an American.  Rightly or wrongly, I’d chosen to live my life in the United States, and naturalizing would be an acknowledgement that I’m not really a Canadian anymore, except in my memories.

Reason #3 was voting, and politics.  I’ve always had a very strong interest in politics, and there was something odd about a passionate politics-watcher being unable to personally participate in the political process.   And not just national politics, but also local politics.  After I did naturalize, the first vote I got to cast was in a local referendum about increasing the property tax levy for my kids’ elementary school district.  It was a closely fought race, I had a strong point of view on the right course of action, and I’m really pleased that I was able to cast a vote on something that directly affected my family.

Reason #2 had more of an actuarial flavor:  mitigating deportation risk.  I’m a pretty straight arrow, so the likelihood that I would do something that could, as a non-citizen, get me deported was very low.  But, the consequences of being deported would have been very dire, for my family and for my professional prospects; and there was a lot to be said for the notion that reducing deportation risk from near-zero to zero was the right thing to do.

My thinking on this issue was also motivated by what I, as a loyal reader of SCOTUSBlog, had learned about the current state of immigration law.  The Supreme Court case Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder was in the news in 2010, and it greatly troubled me.   Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo was a permanent resident  with 4 American-born children who served a 10-day jail sentence for possession of a single tablet of Xanax without a prescription.  The federal government argued that his conviction for this offense made him mandatorily deportable, i.e., that he had no ability to apply for what is called “cancellation of removal” based on an evaluation of the impact that deportation would have and him and his US citizen dependents.  The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in Carachuri-Rosendo’s favor, thus returning some administrative discretion to the question as to whether he would be deported.   Nevertheless, the case reinforced that even “permanent residents” can be subject to deportation for relatively trivial offenses.  I wasn’t planning on committing any such offenses; but why take that risk?

That bring us to my rather curious Reason #1:  giving me the flexibility to leave the USA.  “Permanent residency” is only permanent so long as you continue to live in the USA, you see.  My family actually had our green cards when we lived here in the 1980s, but when we moved back to Canada we had to give them up.   So, if I remained a green card holder, and circumstances arose where I might want to live in a foreign country for some period of time, coming back to live in the USA afterwards would not be a slam-dunk for me.  Whereas by naturalizing, I’d gain a potentially useful right:  the right to leave, knowing that I was free to return.

You’ll notice that the canonical “love of my adopted country” didn’t make my list.  That’s not because I don’t love the United States; I do, to be sure, although that love can wax and wane with the political winds…   Clearly there are many, many naturalized American citizens for whom the United States has given them an opportunity for a good life that didn’t exist for them in their homeland, and for those people the opportunity to call themselves a citizen of the United States has a deep emotional meaning.  I respect that.  And I have a very good life in the USA, and I’m thankful for that.  But, I had the good fortune to have been born in an equally wonderful country.  If I’d never immigrated to the USA, my life in Canada would certainly have been very different in the details than my life here – some other career, some other wife & family – but I don’t doubt that I’d have been able to have a very good life in Canada.  As such, I wasn’t exactly inclined to sing along to the Lee Greenwood song at my naturalization ceremony.   I’d like to think that doesn’t make me any less of an American than anyone else.