Political turbulence aside, becoming a U.S. citizen remains an exciting prospect 

New Americans

click to enlarge rut_1057.jpg

Ruta Smith

Things have moved quickly for 21-year-old Tumaini Peres.

A year ago, she married Butoyi Peres, who today stands patiently in a pink button-up under a live oak tree.

On Tues. June 26, she modeled a colorful headwrap and a satisfied smile as she raised her right hand and cemented her U.S. citizenship with an oath — a promissory note that asks its reciters to renounce all foreign allegiances and, if necessary, take up arms for their new country. Three days earlier, she gave birth to the couple's first child.

"I was hoping to have her before the 26th, on the 18th, and she came on the 23rd, and I was like, 'Oh my god,'" she says. "Now I'm in so much pain, so I have to go back home and sleep."

Her days-old baby's head floated peacefully above a sea of soft pink blankets. Tumaini is most excited about a long visit to see her brothers, sisters, and cousins in her native Tanzania. She hasn't been back in 10 years, partly because the travel restrictions for permanent residents, or green card holders, encourage those seeking naturalization to limit their stays abroad to no more than six months. She also has family to the west that she's never met.

"I've never seen Burundi, maybe next year," she says.

The couple drove two-and-a-half hours from Dillon, a small town near the North Carolina border, so that Tumaini could thread herself into the American fabric at Middleton Place, the same 110-acre stretch of land where she would have suffered ineffable horrors had she arrived two centuries earlier.

A pamphlet for the event calls the plantation a "particularly appropriate venue" for the ceremony. (Post & Courier columnist Brian Hicks later described Middleton Place as an "ideal setting.")

Delivering the citizenship oath was none other than Richard M. Gergel, the same federal judge who sentenced white supremacist Dylann Roof to death last year. The Obama appointee waxed poetic about the virtues of a founding principle of the new republic: freedom of religion. He spoke of the enslaved Africans, of whom "many were of the Muslim faith," and about his grandparents (two Polish, one Russian, and one Canadian).

"I did not realize until I was a teenager that not everyone's grandparents spoke with an accent," he said to a knowing laugh. "My grandparents loved this country and came here with little financial resources, but a commitment to family, work, and faith, just as each of you has come."

click to enlarge Tumaini (left) and Butoyi Peres pose with their three-day-old daughter - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Tumaini (left) and Butoyi Peres pose with their three-day-old daughter

The outdoor ceremony could have easily doubled as a wedding. White chairs faced the plantation house, as well as an altar where Gergel guided the new Americans through their vows of lifelong commitment.

Except that this marriage was between 58 people from 27 different countries and a few founding documents.

Candidates from Brazil, Burundi, Cameroon, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Germany, Guatemala, India, Iran, Malaysia, Mexico, Moldova, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Venezuela, and Vietnam trudged through the grass in their dress shoes and heels to accept their certificates. The combination of euphoria and pride was palpable as the names — long, short, filled with consonants, vowels, and accents — were called out one by one, signaling the end of what has been a years-long process for many.

click to enlarge RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

There was hardly room for anything but unwavering patriotism. The Star-Spangled Banner inspired everyone to instinctively stand, unlike spectators at a football or baseball game. They faced the American flag, held by one of three men cosplaying as part of the Colonial Color Guard, one of whom was black. Two women dressed like Colonial-era maids debated the best place to print photos (Costco). African immigrants were sworn in as U.S. citizens beside Eliza's House, the freedmen's quarters built in 1870 devoted entirely to the history of the African-American experience at a Middleton Place, a plantation that held a peak population of about 150 slaves depending on the season. The property inventory listed 44 slaves at the time Arthur Middleton's estate was settled.

The naturalization ceremony was being held on Middleton's 276th birthday. One week and a day before the Fourth of July commemorated the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, a document signed by Middleton declaring that "all men are created equal."

However murky that promise was, and continues to be, is of little concern to those who desperately want to believe in the most ambitious and majestic of American ideals: economic opportunity, freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and diversity.

"It's like they said in the ceremony, it's a country of immigrants," said Carolina Sacramento Dos Anjos, echoing Judge Gergel's earlier speech, when asked about what it feels like to become a citizen of a country whose political rhetoric toward immigrants has grown more acidic over the past couple years. "It's providing an opportunity for people who want to have a better life. I wasn't scared. I wasn't worried because I know the law."

click to enlarge Carolina Sacramento dos Anjos, 30, moved to the U.S. from Brazil in 2001 - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Carolina Sacramento dos Anjos, 30, moved to the U.S. from Brazil in 2001

Carolina, 30, followed her mother, Rose, to the United States in 2001. Rose had accepted a job offer and was allowed in on an H-1B visa for "speciality occupations," an immigration avenue that the Trump administration has since restricted, citing concerns of misuse by employers.

Carolina began the citizenship process after hitting a self-imposed 15-year mark of living in the U.S, though permanent residents are eligible for naturalization after five years.

"After 15 years, now I'm spending more of my life here than in Brazil, now I'm entitled to feel American," she says, holding a miniature American flag.

Americans' attitudes toward legal immigration are improving. Only 24 percent of Americans now believe that legal immigration should be curbed, down from 53 percent in 2001, according to a survey released by the Pew Research Center last month. At the same time, fewer than half of Americans were aware that most immigrants are, in fact, legal.

During a 2016 campaign stop in Illinois, Donald Trump addressed a man wearing a "Legal Immigrant for Trump" T-shirt.

"People are going to come into our country," Trump said. "We want people to come in. But they've got to come in, like you, legally."


But the number of visitor visas granted under the Trump administration has plunged by 13 percent, according to a Politico analysis of State Department data. And just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a travel ban issued by the Trump administration in September that restricts travel from seven countries: Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea and Venezuela. The last two were added after the president's first two travel bans, which solely targeted majority-Muslim countries, faced backlash for possibly violating the Constitution's Establishment Clause by targeting a specific religion (an interpretation that lines up with Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric.)

Like many legal immigrants who spend years and thousands of dollars to remain in the government's good graces, Carolina is quick to point out the difference between her struggle and that of the families who remain separated after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Maintaining one's legal status is so costly and cumbersome, that it engenders a sense of pride in those who fill out the forms, pay the fees, and make it past the citizenship finish line.

The total filing fee for those applying for naturalization is $725, per the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

For cases like Carolina's, green card filing fees for her and her mother could have ranged anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000, according to Charleston immigration attorney Brad Banias. Renewing those green cards would run each person $455, plus an $85 biometric service fee.

"On a routine case, if someone told me $1,000 to $2,000 in just attorney's fees, that would seem reasonable to me," he said. "I do know people in Charleston who charge more than that. On non-routine cases, the price can go up because you're going to work much longer on it."

"You gotta go through the three jobs, Carolina says. "Working in the morning, in the afternoon, at night, eating from the dollar menu so you can do it, because you don't have a choice."

The whole family agrees that the legal process should be easier. Rose, Carolina's mother, holds a more cynical view of those seeking asylum by attempting to cross the border.

"I know a lot of people come with the kids, and when they arrive here, they send the kid back to their country...They just use the kids to enter the country," she argues. "Most of them lie about the situation and use the system."

That system and its various routes — three years of marriage to a citizen, high-skill employment, asylum — are often maligned, if not entirely conflated with migration by "free riders" who are accused of not contributing to taxes and syphoning away resources.

Carolina's step-father Ron, a self-described "hillbilly from West Virginia" who met Rose online, shares this view.

"You have a very large population that are in Charleston that are illegal," he says. "They work, they make excellent money, they pay no taxes. They don't want to come through the system and the process, they just wanna come to this country."

The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, estimates the total number of "unauthorized immigrants" in South Carolina to be 98,000. In a list of the 121 U.S. counties with the largest unauthorized populations, it lists Greenville County with an estimate of 17,000 undocumented residents. It does not list Charleston County. In 2015, 4.4 million undocumented immigrants paid $23.6 billion in federal income tax, according to the latest IRS data available.

Three young women walked away from the empty lawn chairs and toward the Middleton Place house museum surrounded by an entourage of family and friends.

Megha Patel, 27, Neha Patel, 27, and Neha Patel, 33, (no relation) all attended M.B. Vamdot High School in the western state of Gujarat in India. After school, they all married men who were mostly raised in the States.

click to enlarge High school friends (L-r) Neha, 33, Neha, 27, and Megha, 27, became U.S. citizens on the same day - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • High school friends (L-r) Neha, 33, Neha, 27, and Megha, 27, became U.S. citizens on the same day

"Typical Indian girls with American boyfriends," Megha jokes.

Soon enough, they all found themselves dispersed throughout South Carolina.

"Everyone's in a different place, but it's a pleasure to have family and friends nearby," Megha says.

Cradling her wide-eyed 11-month-old baby, the younger Neha concurs. She recalls a sense of relief after realizing that her new place in Yemassee would only be slightly over two hours away from Megha.

"I felt good," she says, recalling the disorienting and sometimes panicked first days of a new arrival. "At least somebody is nearby that we know.".

None of them shared any visible concerns about the state of the country, opting to focus on what it can deliver based on its platonic ideal.

"In our country, girls mostly don't have too much freedom and economic opportunity. With what they make there, you can't save nothing. Here, you can save at least something," Neha says.

"There are so many different things to do, so many different religions that I have seen here, different people that stay together, and it's really good," Megha adds.


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