Despite these real and limiting experiences of discrimination and racism, for many immigrants becoming American citizens has been the ultimate goal. Becoming a citizen is not an easy process, though it has changed over the years. Immigrants understand that citizenship is the key to all the rights and responsibilities of being an American, and many work hard to become one.
Although many immigrants to Minnesota cherish the memories of their homes, and work to preserve their culture in a new environment, they also feel pride in becoming Americans. Their new identities help them find similarities with others who were also immigrants, now or at an earlier time.
Hared Mah grew up in Somalia and lived in Kenya before moving to the United States in 2001. In 2004, he spoke with an interviewer about what he had learned about America, and he spoke about the immigrant history of Americans.
Many of the people are immigrants from other countries, like Europeans came and then the Japanese and all that stuff. So you feel, like, well, I can also be one of these people. They were all immigrants first.
Interview with Hared Mah, 2004
Some people have come to Minnesota illegally. Others came on temporary student or work visas. Many of these types of immigrants have decided to stay and worked hard to become permanent legal residents or earn full citizenship.
Santa Mies came to the United States illegally in 1953. In 1963, she contracted to work for Jennie-O in Minnesota. The company eventually helped her become a legal resident in 1969. In this interview, she discussed how difficult it was to become a U.S. citizen and the process she went through with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The Immigration Department caught me here. I was young and the company spoke up for me. They said that they would be responsible for me. They would get me permission to finish off my work. They took me to St. Paul to talk to the Immigration Department. They gave me everything I needed.
Interview with Santa Mies, 1976
After attending school in Nigeria and earning his bachelor's degree in Saudi Arabia, Somalian immigrant Abdisalam Adam applied for a master's degree in the United States. He came to America on a student visa, and he explained the difference between coming on a student visa compared to coming as a Somalian refugee.
The process of getting the student visa and applying for college was not difficult. I was able to get my visa and come to the United States. There weren’t the typical hardships that the refugees have gone through, of going through the fighting and through the refugee camps in Kenya and, eventually, coming here. I did not go through that experience. Mine was pretty straightforward, a more easier route to the United States.
Interview with Abdisalam Adam, 2004
The path to citizenship is not easy for immigrants to Minnesota. Immigrants first need to determine their eligibility and meet certain requirements, such as the ability to read, write, and speak basic English. They also need to take a naturalization test to prove their knowledge of American history, culture, and government. Citizenship classes and other resources have helped many immigrants voluntarily become full American citizens.
John Klukken's family immigrated from Norway in 1900, when he was 13 years old. He described how his parents became citizens, and said, "Of course, it was easy to become citizens then."
Interview with Pastor John O. Klukken, 1976
The Hmong Cultural Center also provided citizenship classes to Hmong immigrants and refugees starting in the 1990s. They honored their new citizens at annual summer picnics after they completed the class.
Jagadish Desai came to America as a student, but soon realized that he wanted to become a U.S. citizen. He could not hold dual citizenship between India and America, so he did some research and decided he wanted to belong to this country. He felt that he was given a choice that people born in the United States don't get to make.
Interview with Jagadish Desai, 2003
Wangyal Ritzekura understood the importance of becoming a citizen of the United States when he arrived here from Tibet in 1992. The rights and responsibilities of being a citizen, especially the right to vote, helped Mr. Ritzekura feel as though he is equal to other Americans.
Once we landed on this soil we knew and Tibetan government also knew that it is imperative for us to become U.S. citizens because by becoming U.S. citizens you can do a lot that you cannot do otherwise... now I look at Americans as equals.
Interview with Wangyal Ritzekura, 2005
Becoming a citizen also means you have a right to participate in the political process. Many immigrants have become involved in local, state, and federal government, representing their neighborhoods and communities. These leaders are inspiring examples of what an immigrant can do once they are a United States citizen.
Local leaders, like Charles Marks, led their communities in town councils, as mayors, and as county commissioners. Others served at higher levels of government, including Minnesota's first foreign-born governor, Knute Nelson, and another Swedish-born governor, A. O. Eberhart.
As a second-generation Indian-American, Satveer Chaudhary ran for state office in 1996 and won his election handily. He described how some political pundits were surprised that someone with a name like his won his district, but he said he wasn't surprised—he'd grown up there. "They didn't think an Indian could win," he said, "and that just made me work harder."
Interview with Satveer Chaudhary, 1997
After moving to Minnesota from Colombia in the late 1980s, Patricia Torres Ray began working as an advocate for Spanish-speaking people in Minneapolis. She worked with the Chicano Latino Affairs Council and the Department of Human Services. She decided to run for political office to work on behalf of the community, in particular the low-income Latino families coming into her district. She was the first Latina elected to serve as a senator of Minnesota.
Interview with Patricia Torres Ray, 2010
For more information about this exhibit and the others in this series, use the page links below.