“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.