When my family and I arrived in America in 2006, we weren’t planning to stay. I thought I was taking a working sabbatical – a break from my job as a video producer and our family’s life in London. Twelve years later, on Jan. 19, I had one of the most surreal moments of my life: I was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in the Oval Office by President Donald Trump.
We arrived on a working visa, so that I could help a friend establish a church in Charlotte, North Carolina, (something some of my ancestors, who first emigrated to these shores in 1637 to escape religious persecution in England, might have had mixed feelings about). Some 12 years on, we were living and working in the Washington area and had our green cards. By now, my three daughters had grown up in the United States. This was their home. I wanted to secure my wife and my children’s futures here, and to have a voice in civic life by gaining the right to vote – perhaps because of the changing political climate. As an immigrant, it often feels as though you should shut up and say nothing.
I would consider myself a privileged immigrant. I’m male and white, and because I’m British, people tend to class my IQ several points higher than it actually is. And yet, I have experienced some degree of the sense of dislocation all immigrants experience. And like many, I have struggled with the increasingly negative rhetoric about immigrants, both globally and in the United States – not least from the president himself.
The immigration process can be expensive – with lawyers, our green cards originally cost about $10,000, and application for citizenship cost approximately $750 per adult and $1,200 for each of my children. But with no guarantee that policy wouldn’t suddenly change, I decided we needed to get going last summer, no matter the cost. I was told that the process would take 18 months. To my surprise, I was called in for an interview within six.
The interview itself, on Jan. 10, was straightforward. I passed a relatively simple civics exam and answered some questions to ascertain that I’d been truthful on my application and that I didn’t intend any harm to the United States. Then the immigration officer asked: “You don’t happen to be free this Saturday, do you?” He said there was going to be a small swearing-in. I told him I was available. The officer disappeared from the room, and after some mysterious consultation, came back and said: “You’re in. You’ll be contacted soon.”
As far as I knew, this was typical for a naturalization ceremony. Then the emails started arriving. First, the ceremony was postponed to the following Saturday to accommodate an unspecified dignitary. Then I was told I could take only two people with me to the event, and they would need to provide personal details for background checks. And I had to sign a news release, because there might be media present. I thought, “Well, that’s interesting – maybe the mayor is coming, or who knows, even a senator!” But by Thursday, we still had no details about exactly when or where the ceremony would take place.
Then Friday morning came, and with it an email telling me to expect a call from the deputy White House press secretary. That’s when I told my wife, “I think the dignitary is President Trump.” Stunned, she blurted, “I haven’t got anything to wear!”
We immediately sensed how great a privilege we were being offered. Then we worried about the potential symbolism. Was this going to be some kind of setup? Were we being used as political pawns? We’ve lived here long enough, in this most political of cities, to know nothing is straightforward. But seeing the names of other participants copied on the emails reassured us somewhat – they clearly came from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds.
And President Barack Obama had spoken at a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives during his administration – maybe this was just something that presidents did, like pardoning turkeys at Thanksgiving. In the end, honestly, our curiosity to go to the White House and meet the president may have been greater than anything else.
Saturday finally came, and we arrived at the White House. We heard the distant sounds of a protest close by. The White House staff members were incredibly warm and gracious in welcoming my family. The atmosphere reminded us of a wedding – with everyone genuinely excited for us, and for the ceremony that was about to start.
We were escorted through security to the Roosevelt Room, where we filled out the last of the required citizenship forms. Then we were taken to the Oval Office – which is much smaller than you’d think – for a brief rehearsal, and returned to the Roosevelt Room again to wait. It was awkward at first, with five families in the room who didn’t know one another, and it took us a while to introduce ourselves. We all sat quietly, on our best behavior.
Vice President Mike Pence came in to shake hands with everyone and wait with us, telling us about his grandfather, an Irish immigrant. Kirstjen Nielsen popped in to ask whether anyone needed anything – as if anyone was going to ask the secretary of Homeland Security to get us a coffee! Then, unannounced, there was President Donald Trump, standing in the doorway of the Roosevelt Room. “I’m not supposed to be in here,” he joked.
It is shocking to come face to face with the person of the president of the United States. And to do so as an immigrant, given the circumstances, is, well – complex. But the reality of coming face to face with the president as another human being transcends your preconceptions. You have to start again, recalibrate. He’s taller than you think, and slimmer. He was careful to introduce himself to everyone, making good eye contact, putting people at ease quickly.
We were all led into the Oval Office, where our families sat in a semicircle as the media were let in. Trump made a formal entry into the room, and Nielsen led us through the Oath of Allegiance. The president made a short speech, reading from notes, and shared short biographies for each of the candidates. It was odd hearing the words I had quickly, unthinkingly, jotted down and emailed to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, at their request, now in the president’s mouth.
Then, the president of the United States walked around to each of the five candidates, shook all of our hands (it must have been the third time) and stood behind us as everyone recited the Pledge of Allegiance. When the ceremony was over, and the press and cameras had left, Trump came back into the Oval Office to make sure each family took individual photographs with him, standing behind the Resolute desk, gifted in the 19th century by Queen Victoria.
Of course, I was aware it was all good public relations – a bit of political theater, carefully staged at an extraordinary moment in the nation’s life. Minutes later, he would deliver a speech about ending the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, over a border wall intended to keep people out. After we got home, we scrolled back through the photos on our phones to confirm that this had all really happened. And in the days since the most extraordinary afternoon of my family’s life, we have watched carefully the reaction of our friends and neighbors as we tell them the story.
What I often want to say to them is that, however you choose to interpret the event, don’t refuse to believe it was a truly American moment. If, as a polarized nation, we cannot find things to celebrate together, allowing those we disagree with to celebrate alongside us, transcending – even briefly – our divisions and personal feelings, then what hope is there to build dialogue to transform our troubled time?