My First Year as an American | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

My First Year as an American 

Not quite a dream, one woman's first year as a U.S. citizen has been flecked by challenges and personal struggle.

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click to enlarge Elvia Perez Arizmendi holds up her Certificate of Citizenship inside her Sandy Home. - SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff
  • Elvia Perez Arizmendi holds up her Certificate of Citizenship inside her Sandy Home.

Less than three days before 2017 rolls into 2018, Elvia Perez Arizmendi sits solemnly in the living room of her tidy Sandy trailer home. It's her morning off and the Mexican-American woman reflects on the past year as her 5-year-old daughter lies in her pajamas close by, gently pushing her feet into her mother's side as she plays a game on a smartphone. Pinching a gold fidget spinner she picked up off the carpet, Arizmendi recounts her past.

About 13 months ago, she accomplished a years-long goal. At a ceremony Nov. 30, 2016, in the Utah Capitol, Arizmendi raised her arm and swore allegiance to a new nation. She was with about 120 other immigrants from more than 40 countries who became new U.S. citizens.

Every year, countless new citizens are naturalized. In Utah alone, that number registers in the thousands, according to data provided by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Fiscal year 2015, for example, saw a total of 4,876 Utah residents sworn in (the fiscal calendar ends in September). That number dipped to 3,691 the next year, and in 2017, there were 3,180—one of whom was Arizmendi.

Arizmendi lives with her husband, a commercial painter who she says intends to earn his citizenship soon, and her three youngest children, ages 19, 17 and 5, all of whom were born in the U.S. Rounding out the household is their family dog, Sadie, who joys at yapping at strangers.

City Weekly met Arizmendi at her naturalization ceremony and, two months later, watched President Donald Trump's inauguration with her in her home. As the year began to close, we circled back to hear how she fared in her first year as an American.

After becoming a citizen, she expected 2017 to be a year of triumph, or at least a progressive step toward the proverbial American Dream. Arizmendi works as an assistant manager at a restaurant and an assisted living cook, but she had hoped to find a new job, perhaps. Instead, 2017 was spoiled by a singular, dark cloud: On Christmas Eve 2016, her son, now 24, was called into an immigration court in West Valley City and told he would likely be deported. For several years, he was caught up in legal trouble, she says. The prospect of her son being kicked out of the country she swore to defend consumed her thoughts.

Stoically, Arizmendi recounts the year, and when it seems like she might break down, she reigns in her feelings and steadies her voice. Even still, the emotion is palatable.

"I feel like I lost all this year because I was sad, and I didn't do anything else," she says.

Through the spring months, Arizmendi talked with attorneys about her son's status with the understanding that he might not have any options. "All these months up to July, I wasn't feeling good," she says. That month he was deported.

"I went when he was deported in July. I was waiting for him in Mexico City, and I spent two weeks there," she says.

She didn't elaborate on the extent of her son's legal trouble, other than that he's been busted for multiple DUIs, and he started getting into mischief at a young age.

Arizmendi recognizes the privileges of citizenship. She doesn't have to worry, for instance, if she goes back to Mexico to help her son, whether she can return to the U.S.

"That helped me because a lot of people, when the family is going to be deported, you feel worse because you know that maybe you'll never get to see your family," she says. "If I need to go, I can go and come back."

She says her son moved from Mexico City to a village in an adjacent state. He's miserable, she reports, and was hospitalized after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Arizmendi considered moving back to Mexico for a few months, but she decided it was untenable to leave work for that long and be away from her younger children.

Asked if Christmas provided respite from her grief, Arizmendi says no. "Because I missed my son," she explains.

Perez Arizmendi watches 45’s presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. - DW HARRIS
  • DW Harris
  • Perez Arizmendi watches 45’s presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017.

'We Have to Have a Fix'
Unforgettably, 2017 has been the first year with Trump at the helm. With few exceptions, the new president has had a strained relationship with immigrants. He proposed to build a wall across the entire U.S.—Mexico border and has promised stronger enforcement to deport immigrants. Specifically, he says he'll target those who have committed crimes, such as Arizmendi's oldest son.

On the morning of Jan. 20, 2017, Arizmendi sat at the edge of her couch watching the new president on television. Trump was about to swear his own oath and assume the presidency. She watched quietly, content.

An apolitical observer, Arizmendi says afterward—as the pundits' dissection begins for the next 24-hour news cycle—she hoped that Trump, and by extension, the country, has a successful term. Nearly a year later, Arizmendi's outlook is unchanged. Even in her son's case, she doesn't dispute the ethics of his deportation—a stance that competes with her maternal need to be near her child, to care for and love him.

As for immigration policy, she agrees that some people should be deported.

"He's doing his job if he's taking away people who don't deserve to stay here," she says.

She carves out an exception, however, for children who at a young age unwittingly immigrated to the U.S. illegally with a parent—the so-called DREAMers. Many politicians agree that DREAMers should be offered protection from deportation to a land which they no longer have ties.

"Now in this point, when everyone is going to get deported, for me it's kind of peace to have the papers," she says. "Now, I hear a lot of people are going to be deported. Even they are good people, the DREAMers. They are good people, and they don't deserve to be deported because they are studying and working and they are good people. I feel like they need a chance to stay here with family. I don't think it's fair."

In 2012, former President Barack Obama enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, arguing at the time that if Congress couldn't pass legislation, he would via executive order. Trump, however, in his quest to undo many of the landmarks in Obama's presidency, tweeted in September his intention to undo the executive order, and asked Congress to pass a bill that would provide a solution for DACA recipients.

Last week, at a naturalization ceremony for 10 children whose parents had recently earned citizenship, Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, briefly spoke to the media about immigration policy in Washington. Billing herself as one to "stand up for people who want to become U.S. citizens," Love, herself the daughter of Haitian immigrants, said assisting immigrants through the legal system is key, and it's why she supports the Recognizing America's Children Act.

"I think that getting back and revoking DACA so that we can have a fix in the House is incredibly important because then we give people something that a president can't take away," she says.

She authored a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan, she said, asking him to prioritize DACA-type legislation and get it passed before the end of the year. That didn't happen, but she's optimistic Congress will pass a bill in early 2018. "We have to have a fix. I'm determined to have a fix, and I'm determined to help people who want to be here legally to be able to stay here legally," she says.

Divine Intervention
Arizmendi's tortuous path to citizenship is an example of the blurry line between legal and illegal immigration.

At the age of 22, she moved to the U.S. with her first husband and their young child. All three were undocumented. She had experience working as a secretary. In Utah, she landed a job as a housemaid at La Quinta Inn. Arizmendi says she understood a little bit of English but struggled to speak it. Later, her husband helped her get a job at his work at the Salt Lake City International Airport. She found pleasure in selling snacks and ice cream at a concession counter with a gaggle of Bosnian coworkers.

Arizmendi annoyed her husband when she returned home having picked up Bosnian vocabulary. "He said, 'Why are you learning their language? You're supposed to learn English,'" she says.

After 9/11, airport security was beefed up. "They started checking papers," she says. "Then we had to go." Around this time, her marriage started to fall apart. Arizmendi says her first husband was abusive and controlling.

One day, during a fight, her eldest son's friend was spooked and called the police. Already on probation for a previous domestic violence case, her partner decided to leave the family and move back to Mexico.

For a time, she was lost.

In 2003, her son's hand was nicked with a pencil and developed a minor infection. She told her troubles to a restaurant coworker who asked whether Arizmendi had health insurance. No, Arizmendi replied. The coworker asked whether Arizmendi had documentation. No, Arizmendi replied again.

"I was very blind in this country," she says.

The friend recommended Arizmendi seek out Holy Cross Ministries, who helped align Arizmendi with legal assistance. Because she was the victim of domestic violence, Arizmendi and her son were given U-visas. "They help a lot of people," she says of Holy Cross.

Arizmendi moved to a new neighborhood, she says, hoping that a change of scenery would distance her younger children from some of the riff-raff that surrounded her older son. She remarried and had another child.

As a visa-holder, she was assigned a Social Security number. In 2011, Arizmendi was approved for residency and told that after five years she could apply for citizenship if she wished. Half a decade later, she decided to apply to take the citizenship test.

Arizmendi remembers studying American history and civics for a high-stakes, five-question exam. Adding to the stress, she didn't know which questions would be asked. "I was very nervous when I was there. Even they asked me, 'What kind of car do you have?' and I didn't know. 'What color is your car?' and I forgot the color of my car because I was so nervous."

Regardless, Arizmendi passed—clearing the last significant hurdle to citizenship.

Looking forward, Arizmendi hopes 2018 will deliver happiness where 2017 failed.

"All the year, I spent with a lawyer. Everything I was expecting was kind of ..." she trails off.


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