On a brisk evening at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan on Tuesday, a handful of green-card holders were gathered to learn about the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The group ranged in age and origin: A young man and a young woman in their twenties and a mother in her late forties were all from the Dominican Republic; an older couple was from the Netherlands; a middle-aged woman was from Peru.
All of the attendees were taking part in the Citizenship Project, a series of free classes offered by the Historical Society to help green-card holders prepare for their U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization exam, using artifacts and documents from the collection of the museum. (The civics test requires applicants correctly answer six out of 10 questions about American government and history that are drawn from a list of 100. It is not multiple choice.)
The group was gathered around a glass display case as the teacher passed out laminated copies of the treaty authorizing the sale of 828,000 square miles of North American territory from France to the United States, effectively doubling the size of the latter. She first explained the sale itself, but because there would be a test, she also offered a mnemonic device to help her students remember what exactly the Louisiana Purchase was all about. Pointing to a faded red stain on the document, she asked the students what they thought it might be. “Blood!” one called out.
“It could be blood,” she said, “but what else is red and comes from France?”
“Wine!” shouted another.
“Yes!” she said. “Napoleon spilled red wine on the treaty as he was signing it!”
One day, the students, when asked about the Louisiana Purchase, might remember this tidbit—someone had spilled wine on it. Who would be drinking red wine? A Frenchman, of course. And perhaps, sitting in their USCIS tests, nervous would-be American citizens might remember: The Louisiana Purchase gave French territory to the Americans. An old wine stain might be the difference between becoming an American and not.
The class was being held the day after Senate Democrats ceded—however temporarily—the push to determine a legislative solution to the status of the roughly 700,000 so-called “Dreamers” living in the United States and facing the possibility of deportation, should nothing be done by March 5 of this year. Their legal limbo has become a flash point for the larger debate about immigration, and by dint of that, who fundamentally belongs in this country and who doesn’t. It is against this backdrop that President Trump famously questioned why America was in the practice of admitting so many immigrants from “shithole” countries and expressed his predilection for immigrants “from Norway.”
To say that these have been trying times in the debate over American immigration is an understatement. I asked the students in class that evening, Why now? What made you decide that this was the moment to become a citizen of this place, so clearly fractured in its values and its politics? The older, European immigrants in class—some of whom had been here for several decades—seemed energized and resolute. “To vote!” bellowed one Austrian woman—and it was apparent that her enthusiasm was borne directly of the chaos. She had been here so long, she explained, that she very nearly felt American—and now she wanted to exercise her most fundamental right as one.
A young man from the Dominican Republic was lagging behind the rest of the group. I asked him if the tumult of the present moment made him question whether he actually wanted to be a part of this country. “No,” he responded, without hesitation. “This is still the land of opportunity.” The same was true for his compatriot, the young Dominican woman who was attending class with her mother. She had not found herself victim to any hostilities, she said, and still believed in the promise of U.S. citizenship.
While a few students expressed vague concern that speaking to the press might somehow hinder their chances at becoming citizens, most of the men and women I spoke to were curious and excited. They were enamored of the lessons about America and its Constitution; they compared the capital cities of Brasilia and Washington D.C. They inspected George Washington’s camp bed, on which he slept during his battles with the British; they concluded that the Revolutionary War gave them perspective on this current moment of political turmoil. They were undeterred.
Immigration is often conceived as waves of migrants, washing ashore or flooding across borders—thanks in large part to the soaring or fear-mongering rhetoric that usually describes the act. In truth, becoming a citizen of a new place is a more discreet process: Men and women (and children) who decide that this is the country they want to call home, for whatever reason, who must then begin the process of learning important facts about America so that they may one day become Americans.
These choices—to attend history classes and learn mnemonic devices, to practice English with a cousin who’s fluent—can certainly, en masse, change the composition of a country or a region or a state, but the story of immigration begins with decisions that are much quieter and more private than the din of the present debate would suggest.
That night, walking through the museum displays dedicated to the slave trade and the Trail of Tears, the sins of this moment were overshadowed by the brutalities of the past, as the group of would-be Americans took in the transgressions of their (hopefully) soon-to-be forefathers. American trust in American institutions is at historic lows, and the rest of the world trusts America less than ever before, but here, however fleetingly and at whatever scale, was evidence that the idea of America remained resilient. It had taken a beating (it still is) but even after examining this country’s indelible stains, its complicated story of plunder and progress, and amid the cacophony of national name-calling and brinkmanship, a group of people still walked out into the chilly New York night, convinced.