“The American bureaucracy very swiftly overcompensates for any bright-eyed immigrant delusions. Nihil humanum a me alienum puto, said the Roman poet Terence: ‘Nothing human is alien to me.’ The slogan of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service could have been the reverse: To us, no aliens are human. When folded — along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, the only department of state I had ever hoped to command — into the vast inner space of the Department of Homeland Security, the resulting super-ministry was more like the Circumlocution Office than a reformed bureaucracy. My Canadian friend David Frum, who was actually working in the White House and had had a hand in writing the famous ‘axis of evil’ speech, had his personal paperwork lost when he applied to become an American. Ian McEwan was put under close arrest and hit with an indelible ‘entry denied’ stamp while trying to cross from Vancouver to Seattle for a big public reading: it would have been of little use to him to plead that the First Lady had recently asked him to dinner…
Innumerable times I was told, or assured without asking, that I would hear back from officialdom ‘within ninety days.’ I wasn’t in any special hurry, but it grated when ninety days came and went. Letters came from offices in Vermont and required themselves to be returned to offices in states very far away from the Canadian border. Eventually I received a summons to an interview in Virginia. There would be an exam, I was told, on American law and history. To make this easier, a series of sample questions was enclosed, together with the answers. I realized in scanning them that it wouldn’t do to try and be clever, let alone funny. For example, to the question: ‘Against whom did we fight in the revolution of 1776?’ it would be right, if incorrect, to say ‘The British’ and wrong, if correct, to say ‘The usurping Hanoverian monarchy.’ Some of the pre-supplied Qs and As appeared to me to be paltry… Q: ‘What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?’ A: ‘It freed the slaves.’ No it didn’t: that had to wait until the Thirteenth Amendment, the first United States document to mention the actual word ‘slavery’ (and not ratified by the State of Mississippi until 1995).
Having previously been made to go to a whole separate appointment in deepest Maryland just to be fingerprinted, I sat up on the night before my Virginia one, and decided to read slowly through the Constitution… One had to admire the unambivalent way in which these were written. ‘Respecting an establishment of religion,’ said the very first amendment, drawing on Jefferson’s and Madison’s Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom, ‘Congress shall make no law.’ Little wiggle room there; no crevice through which a later horse-and-cart could ever be driven. Alas for advocates of ‘gun control,’ the Second Amendment seems to enshrine a ‘right of the people to keep and bear arms’ irrespective of whether they are militia members or not. (The clause structure is admittedly a little reminiscent of the ablative absolute.) And the Eighth Amendment, forbidding ‘cruel and unusual punishments,’ is of scant comfort to those like me who might like that definition stretched to include the death penalty. If the Founders had wanted to forbid capital punishment (as, say, the state constitution of Michigan explicitly does), they would have done so in plain words…
For a writer to become an American is to subscribe of his own free will to a set of ideas and principles and to the documents that embody them in written form, all the while delightedly appreciating that the documents can and often must be revised, so that the words therefore constitute, so to say, a work in progress.
This was all rather well set out in the passport that I immediately went to acquire… Human history affords no precedent or parallel for this attainment. On the day that I swore my great oath, dozens of Afghans and Iranians and Iraqis did the same. A few days later, I noticed that I had sloppily gummed a postage stamp onto an envelope with the flag appearing upside down. I am the most frugal of men, but I reopened the letter, tore up and threw away the envelope, invested in a whole new stamp and sent Old Glory on its way with dignity unimpaired. A small gesture, but my own.”
Below: Hitchens takes his oath of citizenship with the Director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, on April 13, 2005. You can read more about the event and its lead up in Hitch’s piece in the Atlantic in the following month “On Becoming American”.
Then read on:
- Gore Vidal on what the “Pursuit of Happiness” means today
- The three words Ben Franklin scratched off the Declaration of Independence
- Thomas Sowell riffs: “The problem with our ‘immigration policy’… is that we don’t have an immigration policy”
- From Hitch-22: Hitchens on his mother, on boozing, on the passage of time