Portrait of My Mother in Mint Green

She lived most of her life in the United States. Why didn’t she become a citizen?

An illustration of two photographs of a Chinese-American woman. The photographs are torn in the center. In the photograph on the left, the woman appears in black and white and appears youthful. In the photograph on the right, the woman appears in color.

Artwork by Sloane Leong

The day after our mother died, my eldest sister and I sat beneath fluorescent lights in the back room of a funeral home just outside of Orlando. I’d been up much of the night, grieving, and could barely see through my tear-swollen eyelids, so when Theresa slid a mint-green rectangle across the table to me, it took me a minute to understand what it was.

Our mother looked so young in the photo—a teenager, maybe. As I lifted the card to inspect it more closely, I realized I’d never seen a photo of her taken before she’d married my father at the age of twenty-nine. Here, she was rendered in black and white, and she wasn’t smiling. Her eyes glistened, staring off into the distance as if daydreaming.

I didn’t want to give it back, this image from another era, the key to a part of my mother I had never known, but Theresa was looking at me expectantly. “I found it in Mom’s wallet,” she said. “I needed to give an ID to the medical examiner, and this was all she had. Did you know she still had her green card?”

Our mother had rarely talked about her life before she met my father, but she’d told me enough that I knew she’d been born in Peru to Chinese parents and that she’d immigrated to the United States as a child. Aside from a few years living abroad with her first husband, who was in the navy, she had lived the rest of her life here, and I’d assumed that she’d become a naturalized citizen long ago. In fact, in her seventy-six years, my mother had never obtained US citizenship. Until she died, she was a permanent resident—or, as her green card put it, an alien. She’d carried this card with her for sixty years as proof of her right to live in this country, where she’d birthed seven children, worked innumerable jobs, written poems, sketched animals, collected shells on the beach, cooked curries, baked pies, and played Van Morrison on endless loops in her car.

The woman who raised me had been passionate about politics, and conversations about government and civil rights were commonplace in our household. I was a voracious young reader, and at eight, when I asked my mother for new books, she handed me a stack of her favorite paperbacks. George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle were among them. By the end of that summer, I was a pint-size critic of capitalism and totalitarianism, and my mother would beam when I tried to strike up chats with strangers about the importance of organized labor and the horrors of state propaganda.

Later in life, when I spoke about my origins as a writer, an activist, and a person with a political conscience, I shared this story about my mother and the books. I repeated it countless times while canvassing, knocking on doors in unfamiliar neighborhoods, encouraging people to vote their values. In those months following my mother’s death, I lay awake wondering what it meant that my mother had never once cast a ballot, that for all her political convictions and opinions about leaders, she never voted to determine the outcome of an election. When I was a child, she had told me so often that I could become anyone I wanted to be—even the president—while knowing all along that she could never hold political office herself.

I wondered why she’d never applied for citizenship. I reached out to friends who’d naturalized and to acquaintances who worked with people navigating the citizenship process, and I discovered it’s not uncommon for permanent residents not to become citizens. According to the National Immigration Forum, in 2023 more than nine million permanent residents are eligible to obtain US citizenship, but fewer than a million will apply. For some, the fees are a barrier. The current filing fee for a naturalization application is $640, and most applicants need to pay an additional $85 fee for fingerprinting and photographs. These fees don’t account for the expense of legal assistance or other support in completing the application process. Although my mother experienced periods of poverty throughout her lifetime, I can recall at least several years in my childhood when such a fee wouldn’t have been a burden on our family. Maybe while she was providing and caring for her children, applying for citizenship just wasn’t a personal or financial priority.

Other common barriers to naturalization are the required exams: an oral civics test about US government and history and a test to determine an applicant’s ability to read, write, and speak English. Some of the questions on the civics test are notoriously difficult. For example: “How many members does the House of Representatives have?” Or: “Name one writer of the Federalist Papers.” The civics exam is challenging enough that even if it were offered as a multiple-choice test, only one in three current citizens would be able to pass, according to a recent survey released by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. And though the English test is described by US Citizenship and Immigration Services as requiring only “simple vocabulary and grammar,” it can nevertheless prove challenging for people who don’t have access to English classes or to a community with whom they use English on an everyday basis.

Although my mother had little formal education, as she had left high school to raise my eldest sibling, she was intelligent and determined. With her curiosity about government and history, she could have easily passed a civics test if she’d wanted to. Though her first languages were Spanish and Chinese, she’d been introduced to English early and spoke it fluently. By the time I was born, she couldn’t remember her native languages well enough to pass them on to me, and the only accent anyone could detect was a hint of the Irish brogue she’d picked up from her teachers at Catholic school, and the occasional nasal vowel she’d acquired later, while living in New Jersey.

If these barriers weren’t too cumbersome for my mother, why hadn’t she ever naturalized? As I researched further, I learned of one other requirement that might have been a concern for her: good moral character. This is one of the haziest requirements, legally speaking, as it’s subject to interpretation by the courts that oversee immigration cases. Various criminal offenses can count as “lack of good moral character,” including substance use, violent acts, or any action that resulted in incarceration. Courts have also interpreted theft and making false statements as “crimes of moral turpitude” that can bar someone from citizenship.

To my knowledge, my mother was never convicted of a criminal offense. But a few years after my parents divorced, when I was eleven and my mother was in her mid-forties, she and her boyfriend stole a large sum of money from their workplace and fled New Jersey, telling my younger brother and me that we were all going on a “vacation.” To evade the police—and my father, who had joint custody—we traveled down the length of the East Coast for several months, living under assumed names, changing our hairstyles, and wearing sunglasses and hats in public as if we were celebrities dodging paparazzi.

Eventually, my father found us, and my brother and I moved in with him, returning to a fairly normal life in which we saw our mother only during occasional visits. Her boyfriend was later convicted of the theft, and during the investigation, my mother admitted that she’d been a party to those crimes—an admission that, in other naturalization cases, has been enough for the government to deny citizenship. Though these events took place thirty years before her death, giving her plenty of time in which to prove her character had changed, she may have feared the application process would bring attention to these past offenses, and that she might face prosecution or even deportation.

Permanent residents can be deported for crimes of moral turpitude, even for misdemeanors. For instance, a public admission or evidence on a medical report of the use of criminalized drugs can be enough for the government to deport green card holders. Given the extent of my mother’s offenses, maybe she worried that her admission would be enough to oust her from the country where she’d lived most of her life. Or maybe she feared the bureaucratic loopholes used to deport other permanent residents, like the requirement for green card holders to advise US immigration authorities in writing of any change of address within ten days. My mother had an itinerant, free-spirited nature, and once she no longer had children at home to care for, she moved often, usually failing to let anyone else in our family know where she was headed until long after she’d arrived there. Given how frequently my siblings and I lost track of her whereabouts, it’s hard to imagine that she would have reported her address to the government with each move she made.

Perhaps she wasn’t even aware of these regulations, but I suspect some part of her must have been anxious about the possibility of being sent back to Peru, a place where she hadn’t lived since she was a toddler, a country where she didn’t have any family or friends, where she could no longer speak or understand the dominant language, where she would almost certainly have struggled to survive even more than she had in the United States. No one will ever be able to tell me for sure why my mother never tried to become a citizen, but no matter the reason, she would have carried this risk—this threat—of deportation with her throughout her life.

The fear of deportation prevents people—even residents who hold a green card—from interacting with official systems, and given my mother’s Orwell-inspired healthy distrust of government, it makes sense that she might not have sought help when she was in abusive relationships, when she needed health care, when state assistance might have kept our family from living in precarity, wondering how we’d pay for food or utilities. Ironically, her reluctance to seek help may have been what led her to seek resources through criminal means, believing that breaking the law would be safer than interacting directly with the government.

I can’t help but wonder how her life would have been different if she’d been a citizen. Would she have been happier, healthier, safer? Would she still be alive? And how would we—her children—have been different without the constant presence of this unspoken, unnamed fear? I can’t know. I can only look at that photo of my mother on her green card, her round face and dark hair so much like my own. I can only imagine that mint-green rectangle among nine million others, all the people who might choose citizenship if these barriers didn’t exist. I can only use the rights I came to by luck of birthplace to learn more about the immigration system, to collaborate with other people seeking to change it, to live up to the political conscience my mother planted in me all those years ago.


Civic Life, Civil Rights, Ethics, Family, Identity, Politics, Migration, Citizenship


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Also in this Issue

From the Director: Seeing Green

Editor's Note: Green

Pantoum for an Uncertain Future

Tonalidades de la Vida / Shades of Life

Buying In

Portrait of My Mother in Mint Green

Losing the Forest for the Trees

Memoria Ancestral

Merciful Debt


People, Places, Things: The Dalles, Oregon, 1988

Discussion Questions and Further Reading for "Green"