Laila Lalami on what happens when a US border agent gets to decide who looks like a citizen

Millions of people in the United States aren’t truly citizens. That’s not because they’re undocumented. They’ve waited their turn, taken the test, and sworn the oath. On paper, they have every right to be here and enjoy Constitutional protections. 

But in practice, they’re not treated that way. Their patriotism, place and purpose in this country are questioned. 

Laila Lalami describes these as “conditions” on their citizenship. Her new book is “Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America.” She lives in Los Angeles and teaches creative writing at UC Riverside.

KCRW: You were born in Morocco. You came to the United States in the early 1990s for a PhD and became a citizen in 2000. Your naturalization ceremony was in Pomona, ironically at a site where the U.S. once interned citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. How did you feel when you took the oath and became a full citizen of the U.S. citizen? 

Laila Lalami: “It was a very special day. It was actually a day in July, it was quite hot. There were about 3000 people in this huge hangar at the Pomona Fairplex. And it was a moment of great hope. And I would say patriotism, because that is what really tied all of these people together, which was a desire to belong to this country, and this sort of embrace of it through the act of becoming a naturalized citizen. 

And it was only years later that in trying to look up the size of the Pomona Fairplex, for a piece I was writing, that I discovered that it had served as an assembly center in the 1940s for citizens of Japanese ancestry, who were shipped from there to concentration camps or internment camps in Wyoming. 

And when I discovered that, I was completely shocked because it seemed to me that … the state was swearing in new citizens in the same spot in which it had essentially questioned and removed … protections of citizenship from its own people in the same arena. And that seemed to me an act of erasure. 

And it is connected to national identity because in creating a national identity, there are certain things that are remembered, and certain things that are forgotten. And this seemed to me was one of those things that had been forgotten.”

You describe the oath you took to bear true faith to the Constitution and laws of the United States. And you write that faith was an apt word for the leap. You are taking a leap of faith? What did you mean by that? Why were you taking a leap of faith when it is so concrete what you're asked to do?

“Because precisely for this reason, I think I didn't know at the time that it was a matter of trust in a new country, that what it was promising were things that it would deliver, that all people would be treated equally under the Constitution. At least that's what the Constitution promised. That didn't mean that things would be perfect, but that there were ways of seeking redress and all of that. And what became clear to me was that there's the theory, and then there's the practice."

You describe coming back to this country with your husband from a vacation abroad, and the customs officer asks your husband how many cows he paid for you. Was that one of the first moments when you came face to face with this idea that you weren't considered fully American? 

“Right. … The very first time I traveled with a U.S. passport was when I had an encounter with a border agent in which I was asked questions like that. And of course, the border agent thought he was being really funny. But I was furious. Because it was such a denial of agency, not to mention a sexist comment. And I think it was one of those moments when I really came to realize how … all the passports look the same, but not everybody looks the same to the border agents. 

And it is in encounters between the individual and a representative of the state — be it a border agent, or a police officer, or an administrator or school administrator, people who are kind of deputized by the state to act on its behalf — that you really get to observe how citizenship in the United States is really a hierarchical system. So it's really in these encounters with agents of the state that you get to measure this idea of conditional citizenship.”

These encounters with members of the state when it comes to border agents, this can happen within the United States, within 100 miles of the border. It’s legal to have Border Patrol stops 100 miles from the border. So most citizens of America could fall within that purview of being checked by Border Patrol. 

“Absolutely. And it's by far one of those quirks of American border protection. That seems to surprise most people when I discuss it. So I personally, just a few years ago, I was traveling in Texas, and I was on Interstate 10, when I came across one of these border checkpoints. And the agent sort of poked his head in the car and said, ‘Are you all US citizens?’ And then pointing to each one of us in the car, and we each had to say yes or no. 

And now … like most people, you don't carry a proof of citizenship on your person at all times, you don't walk around with a passport or a birth certificate. So you can say yes, and the border agent can choose to believe you. Or you can say yes, and the border agent might not believe you. 

And if they don't believe you, there is a risk of being put in immigration detention, where you then have to prove your citizenship before you can be released. … It's this ideal: Well who looks like a citizen? And the border agent gets to decide who looks like a citizen.

So it's not so much a matter of paperwork, as it’s a matter of what is the archetypal citizen in the United States? And the closer you are to that archetype, the less likely you are to be put in immigration detention.”

Although I wonder if that archetype is changing as the United States is changing. A lot of border patrol agents are themselves Latino. 

“Exactly. But the fact is that that archetype still really holds a great deal of power, I think, in people's minds, like culturally. And I think that that is what we are debating even right now with this idea of who belongs in America, who is sort of a citizen. And even if the border agents are becoming … more diverse, the mechanisms of the state are not necessarily acting in a way that shows that.” 

At one point in the book, you write an anecdote where you have to fill out paperwork, and you're asked your race. And you check the boxes for both white and Black. Why? 

“This was 30 years ago, it was my first time seeing these forums. I had no idea what was meant by each definition. Because I was born in Morocco, and I read the definition for each race. And it said for white, it was for a person who had ancestry in Europe and North Africa or the Middle East. Whereas for Black, it was for people who had ancestry in the Black racial groups of Africa. And that's very confusing. 

Because if you have a country like Morocco, and you come from the … north … you could technically fit under the white description. But if you come from the south, then you would fit from the Black description. But then what about if you're in the middle? … What box do you check? 

So it was one of those moments of coming across something that seems obvious to Americans because they grew up with it. … I was a foreign student, I didn't know how to approach these forms. … They had very few boxes, at least that's how it was at the time. … You had to pick one category or the other, and you couldn't be in multiple categories. So it was very confusing.”

Do you see yourself as white or not white? 

“Well, it's not so much how I see myself because … I usually check ‘other’ and then I put Moroccan. But I will say that the Census Bureau counts all Arabs — regardless of what they look like or what their skin color might be — they count us as whites. … Arabs are an ethnicity. You can be white, you can be Black, it can vary. But for now, the Census Bureau deems this as white. So that's how we count.”

How are you deemed out in the world? Do you think you're seen as white?

“I really don't know. I think that this is one of those things that really depends on the country, like here I am perceived as non-white. But if I travel to another country, the perception will change. And depending on what language I use … I always joke, for example, when I'm in London, that I sound like a Yankee because I go into these given speeches or being on panel discussions, and everybody speaks with these very British accents. So to them, what stands out probably is the fact that the accent sounds vaguely American. 

So I think that people perceive you differently depending on the sort of space that you occupy, the country in which you are. So outside the United States, it probably would just be American or immigrant American without further detail necessarily.”

You say your daughter is fluent in Arabic, but learned in preschool to not speak Arabic in public because of the reaction. So she was born in this country, she's a United States citizen. How do you think she views her position in American culture? 

“She's Generation Z. She has completely different views of herself. And you'd have to ask her how she perceives race in America. She's definitely somebody who spoke Arabic fluently as a child, but then being in school and feeling the pressure of just being like other kids, just didn't want to deal with it, and didn't want to speak it, and wanted to speak the same as everybody else, and wanted to use English in the home. 

… When she was very little, [she was] bringing foods ... for school lunches and getting teased about that. … There is a certain amount of pressure, I think, that children of immigrants face to be more similar to other kids at school. And I think she certainly experienced that at one point.”

You close the book by paraphrasing Frederick Douglass, saying that you “don't despair of this country.” And given what you wrote about in the preceding pages, it seems like there's a lot to despair about. Where do you see the hope? Where do you see the prospect of a less conditional citizenship, both for yourself and for other immigrants? 

“I think that despair is, in a sense, easy. It's like apathy ... requires that you take no action and that you give up. And I think when I look, for example, at the existence of my own daughter — who's somebody who was born in this country, the child of an immigrant, the granddaughter of Cuban refugee — her own life would not be possible inside of maybe 50 years ago or 100 years ago. 

So I do think that for the sake of the future, for the sake of children, we cannot afford to have despair. And we have to, in fact, take action and not despair. And that action can take different forms. … It can be … being involved in like mutual aid organizations or … making donations to food banks … or volunteering at schools or volunteering in prisons. There's so much that we can do just as citizens to help redress the inequalities that exist in society. And yes, of course, voting.” 

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski



  • Laila Lalami - author of “Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America” and professor of creative writing at UC Riverside