From Irish citizen to American: ‘I learned in America – fake it till you make it’
A lot happened in the 10 years since I last had to renew my green card
Áine Greaney emigrated alone from Ireland to America aged 24.
Áine Greaney emigrated alone from Ireland to America aged 24. In her new book, Green Card and Other Essays, the author has written about her 30-year journey to becoming a naturalised US citizen. This is an excerpt from the essay Green Card.
At the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) building the security men scan your bag and your coat and your pockets. You have driven here to renew your green card because, every 10 years, this is something you must do to live in America.
All this scanning has been done before, and each time reminds you of all the others.
There was the woman in Albany New York who lunged across her desk to demand how many children you were planning on smuggling in.
There was that border-town woman in Vermont who made you take another unpaid day off work to drive through a frozen countryside because she swore your Irish language name was a typo or a ruse.
There was that last time in Rhode Island, where a young man’s creaking office chair beat a rhythm with his pissed-off sighs and where you clicked your fingers at him and commanded this surly man child to lower his voice and mind his manners with the elderly Latina woman.
That last one was 10 years ago now, and a lot can happen in 10 years. There have been transatlantic flights and funerals. There have been tears and parties, arrivals and departures. There was a recession where you cold-called companies and sold all your best office clothes.
You’re at the immigration desk. This is the correct room and correct desk because you have double checked the signs. You pull yourself up tall because this is another thing you have learned in America: Fake it till you make it.
You hand the woman your completed forms. In Spanish-accented English, she hands you a clipboard with more forms. She smiles at you, and you want to hug her because here’s one of them who doesn’t treat you like a beggar or a crook.
There’s a new biometric machine. She starts with your thumb. Roll slowly from left to right. All this rolling reminds you of a baby in its cot, and even though she works for the federal government, you wonder how many times someone has called this woman a “spic”.
“Pressing too hard?” she asks. You want to pat her hand, to assure her that it’s not just girls like her. That you’ve been called a “mick”. That at cocktail parties or fundraiser dinners they have ranted on about immigrants while they passed you the cranberry relish. You cited US labour statistics, and they said, “Oh, gosh, we didn’t mean you. I’m mean, you’re …”
Then you think you could tell this woman an old, old story, and that she would not rush you through or twirl her hand to fast forward you to the story’s punchline. Instead, she would nod along and listen.
Once upon a time, your story would begin. Once upon a time, when I first moved to this country, I washed dishes in a restaurant where the chefs screamed and cursed and the waitresses clanked dirty platters into plastic buckets.
This was a long time ago, in a sub-zero winter that froze the snot in your nostrils and the tissues in your pockets.
“Next finger,” the USCIS woman says. Now her expression has flattened, and you wonder if that tight smile says: Debo corregir las suposiciones de esta chica blanca.
You wonder, too, if she would interrupt and shush your tale.
Oh, mi amiga, your story is so yesterday.
Sure, we washed our dishes and picked our artichokes because back then nobody wanted plastic buckets of filthy restaurant dishes, just like nobody wanted entire shops without fresh, California vegetables. So the USCIS people looked the other way.
But listen, have you really learned so little about America? We immigrants are not a tribal force. These days, when the deporters search and the ICE men cometh, it’s usually for my people, mi amiga, not yours.
Green Card and Other Essays by Áine Greaney is published by Wising Up Press