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.