Friday, June 10, 2011

Homeland

Today we took Mademoiselle to the American consulate in Paris to formalize her status as an American citizen and apply for her passport and her Social Security number.

We did the same for le Petit when he was only two months old. I recently took out his passport and looked at the photo where he has the serious, slightly confused look of a tiny infant. He was still too small to hold his head up, so I propped him on my lap for the passport photo, using a pillowcase draped over my chest to form a white background. Although he obviously doesn't remember the photo or the visit to the consulate now, almost four years later, he's beginning to understand what it means.

"You get to go to school in the car this morning," my husband announced as le Petit got out of bed, "Because we're taking Mademoiselle to the American consulate. That's so she can become an American, like you."

Le Petit hopped down the hallway in his pajamas, chanting happily, "Je suis américain ! Et maman aussi !" Le Petit is fascinated with geography right now, and he's beginning to grasp the concepts of continents, oceans, and countries. I'm not sure he's actually associated yet the idea of being American with the United States. I suspect his mental construct of the United States is limited to three cities: Seattle, New York, and Washington D.C. ("Where Obama lives"), a few illustrations in his children's books, and the all-important notion of "Where Grandpa and Gramby live."

We hurried to drop him off at school and then stressed and bickered our way through Paris' morning traffic, arriving ten minutes before our 9:30 appointment. It turned out there was no need to rush. We waited for an hour in a large room lined with numbered service windows, watching the "now serving" numbers pop up in mystifying disorder. There were several other couples with small children waiting for appointments, too. I struck up a conversation with a woman who, like me, was carrying an infant in a wrap carrier. She was born in France to an American family, just like le Petit and Mademoiselle were, and she identified herself as both American and French. "I'm a Parisian," she told me matter-of-factly in a flat Midwestern accent, causing me to do a double-take despite myself. Her partner was English, and they had an appointment at the British Embassy later in the day. They were registering their third child.

She had nothing good to say about the Americans at the consulate, or the process she'd gone through to register her previous children.

She told me, "When my boyfriend called up his consulate to tell them, 'My French girlfriend is pregnant, what do I do to make sure the child is British?' they just told him, 'Sir, the child already is.'"

The Americans, on the other hand, had made her jump through hoops to prove that she had enough physical presence in the US to transmit citizenship -- there's a requirement of five years, if I remember correctly -- even though she'd attended high school, college and graduate school in the country. She was most irritated that the official had implied that she somehow must have gone back to France during the brief break between quarters at her university, thus voiding five days of the school year she was claiming.

I nodded sympathetically. I theoretically understand why the physical presence test is applied, because otherwise generation upon generation born abroad could claim American citizenship without any true tie to the country. On the other hand, I get defensive when the test is actually applied to me or to my children. I lived in the US until I was 26 years old and never left the country except for brief vacations. I was soon standing in front of a consular official who was asking for details of those vacations, including specific dates and durations that I had no longer any clue about. Luckily, they let my foggy memory slide, for it was clear enough that I passed the test regardless. But I made note to myself to start saving the boarding passes for each trip I take back with the kids, just in case they need them some day.

Extremists in both France and the United States have been talking recently of making it more difficult to claim citizenship in these sorts of cases. In France, it is already reportedly difficult for children born to a foreign parent, even on French soil, to renew their identity papers. Xenophobia is hardly surprising in hard economic times, I suppose. When times are tough, who better to blame than those who came, uninvited, to take their slice of the pie? But I am saddened when I think of it, even more so now that I'm caught in the 'other,' too. My children are both French and American, and inevitably to some people that will mean that they're somehow less of each. We decided to get all their paperwork straightened out early in their lives, just in case.

I'm not complaining, not really, because I doubt that this will represent any real hardship to me or to my kids. My kids will ultimately carry both passports, it's just a question of navigating the bureaucracy. I realize as well that my children are white, upper middle class, and born in a first-world country with a claim of citizenship in another first-world country. Truly all the privilege cards are stacked their favor. But I inevitably think of other kids who were brought to the US undocumented, were educated in the US, and are are just as rightfully American as my children, yet they have no simple path to citizenship. I also think of children who were born in France with a skin color or a last name that doesn't fit in the French idea of their own identity, and may therefore be regarded skeptically for the rest of their lives.

Like it or not, the world is getting smaller, and there will be more and more children like mine. Like these. I happen to think that these are the children who will grow up to interpret things for the rest of us. Raised between two cultures, they will be able to build bridges. It's a shame that the world sees them more as a threat or as a challenging exception than as an asset.

During the interview with the consular official, there's a moment where they visibly decide if your story holds, if your paperwork is in order, and if your child is therefore worthy to become a bone fide American. They then smile and let you know you'll receive the passport in the mail in a few weeks. Even if I knew today that was all just a formality, I still let out of a sigh of relief.

8 comments:

Cloud said...

You're way ahead of us. We haven't gotten either kid either of the two passports they are entitled to. I should really get on that.

I agree with you that it is sad to see the xenophobia and tribalism on the rise- even if I can sort of understand why, I hate to see it.

Have you run into the concept of "third culture kids" yet? Our kids aren't exactly what that references, but I think it is an interesting concept.

Sylvie said...

Ah yes, the boundaries versus the bridges. It certainly can be challenging to be accepted as anything but mono-cultural, as I am discovering as I insist on being recognized as both bi-racial and tri-cultural! Even the most open-minded people have a hard time figuring this out, let alone accepting it, though I've noticed that people under 40 seem most able to grasp this....

paola said...

I'm letting it all work out by itself the way it did for me.

Around 25 years ago I pleasantly discovered that I was also an Italian citizen even if I had always known that I was 'Italian'. It made things so much easier when I eventually came to live here in Europe ( long before moving to Italy I lived in Spain) and now it has helped me avoid bureaucratic tangles that Italy is famous for.

When my kids are old enough to decide if they want to, they can get themselves their Aussie passport so they can do what their Mum did in reverse. There is really no need to rush now at their age seeing they have the same rights as kids with Aussie citizenship, without the residency. A passport is not going to make them feel any more Australian than they already are.

paola said...

That should read....than they arleady DO.

hush said...

The whole physical presence test is absurd. If a parent is a US citizen, you should be, too if that's what you and your family choose. Isn't that why they have loyalty oaths and make you sign your passport?

I hate how 9/11 has effed up everything immigration-related in the US.

Jac. said...

We were so on the ball getting DS's passport - we had lots of plans to continue our traveling ways with him, before the reality of having a small child struck. DD - I had her photos taken at two months - and I still haven't submitted her application. Not even sure the photos are good any more. I have two passports (UK/Canadian) but my kids don't qualify for the UK passports unless we move there (need their residency). I've toyed with the idea because (a) my husband has business interests in the UK, so it wouldn't be a stretch and (b) I think two passports are really valuable in this day and age - especially any passport that opens up the entire EU. But no plans in the immediate future.

We also have visas for working in the US. Getting those was quite the process. They need to be renewed early next year and I am dreading it.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@Cloud - I had to google 'third culture kids.' I'd never heard of the concept -- I guess I don't hang out with other expats enough! I guess I think that kids with two parents from different cultures, as opposed to two parents with the same culture parachuted into a second, are more likely to build a deeper understanding of each. But maybe that's just my jealousy of those extravagantly-housed corporate expats showing.

@Sylvie - and I admire you a lot for affirming your identity as tri-cultural and bi-racial! A role model for le Petit and Mademoiselle when they grow up.

@paola - I'm too worried about the future political climate in France and in the US to leave it for when they get older. Plus, more practically, the US technically requires them to have a US (not French) passport to enter and leave the country. In France, if children born to even one foreign-born parent don't formalize their citizenship before age 18 it becomes a huge administrative headache, too, thanks to a law passed a couple of decades ago. It sounds like in Australia and in Italy they're much more enlightened.

@hush - and the far-right parties here in France are effing up everything immigration related in France, and we don't even have 9/11 to blame! Though my husband went through the whole INS BS back in the US and it was no picnic. Xenophobia is a basic human trait, I'm afraid.

@Jac - It sounds like Canada and the UK are far more enlightened than the US. I have a friend who is in the middle of applying for "Leave to Remain" in the UK (so much classier than "permanent residency," sir) and it sounds almost... amusing. Comparatively speaking. Some day I'll have to blog about my experience in France... back in my day (almost 9 years ago, eek!) it was easy-peasy, provided you were married to a French citizen (and didn't end up dealing with a civil servant with a bad attitude, alas always a risk).

Zenmoo said...

- I'm a third culture kid. I mean, I'm sixth generation Australian and I couldn't get a passport from anywhere else, but I certainly don't sound particularly Australian. Neither do any of my siblings! We've all got variations on some strange hybrid accent. One sister and my brother say Mom, another sister and I say Mum.

I think your right though, growing up between cultures would be different to growing up as part of a family of blended cultures. It's something I'm conscious of now I've got my own little bi-cultural baby!