I moved to America—or as I liked to think about it then, to New York City—on the coldest day of January 2013. As my plane descended toward the JFK airport early in the afternoon, the glistening sun bounced on thin sheets of ice floating on the bay, shining like a national guitar. I had: One new suitcase packed with Italian clothes; a thousand odd euros in the inside pocket of my purse; a sublet lined up; no job; and a large, sealed envelope.
Inside the envelope were all the documents that, together with the immigrant visa on my passport, were going to turn into the green card I had won through the Diversity Visa lottery—a program that assigns a number of permanent residency visas at random to people who come from countries (such as mine, Italy) that are underrepresented in the immigration quotas of the previous five years. There is no scarcity of Italian Americans but, as it turns out, not a lot of Italians move to America anymore.
I had applied almost yearly since the first time I visited New York in 2005, on a work trip. In just a couple of days, the city had bewitched me. I got home with an irrational, feverish desire to go back. “To do what?” an old boyfriend used to ask. I didn’t really know. “Why?” Another good question to which I didn’t have an answer. It might be that I come from a line of southern Italian people who have seen in America a promised land. Or that the first day I woke up in New York City, I left my soulless chain hotel in Times Square and walked to Central Park. I found it covered in snow, with Christo’s Gates standing in the soft morning light. Or that all around town posters pitching New York for the 2012 Olympics (which London eventually won) perfectly conveyed—with the slogan “the world’s second home”— the feeling I had upon landing. I wanted that home to be mine, too.
Upon my arrival at JFK, the immigration officer took my envelope and dispassionately asked me a few routine questions. He checked my documents, took my fingerprints and photo, and explained that I would receive my green card in the mail in a couple of weeks. “Welcome home,” he said, as he handed me back my stamped passport.
His greeting was both heartwarming and daunting. Was this really going to become my home?
It’s easy, especially if you are European, to be snobby and cynical about America. And I was. For those first few years I scoffed at the idea of naturalization. I loved New York, but to love America was a whole different thing. As time went by, I eventually warmed up to the practical aspects of citizenship—after all, I would get to keep my Italian citizenship, too—but I looked at it as a rational next step, not something I was emotionally invested in.
Things changed in 2016 when I followed my first presidential campaign as a resident, and a journalist. I watched the unfathomable rise of Donald Trump as a candidate, and in him I saw a challenge to a set of values that I had grown to respect and love—because America had taught me about them.
The ways in which racism manifests itself. Feminism. The challenges to LGBTQ rights. These are lessons I learned here. In only a couple of years, this country revealed to me the extent of my privilege—it had showed me that as a white, straight, highly educated, young Christian woman, life is easier for me than for most—and how I could be unwittingly offensive and inconsiderate about it, in a way I had never been forced to question before. It also taught me how diversity is challenging and forces you to question your beliefs, but in it lies the truest form of freedom. A society that cherishes everyone’s individuality, recognizing all identities as equal, is the ultimate manifestation of liberty. It reproduces, in the social order, the true miracle of humanity: to be one not in spite of our differences, but because of them—as it is the uniqueness of each of us that is the only thing we truly have in common.
The freedom that comes from respecting and protecting this uniqueness, a value that I consider quintessentially American, appeared to be suddenly under threat. Like many others, I had thought America would rise above this challenge. That it didn’t broke my heart in the way only this country can. It was a painful realization: This was not the place I thought it was—not yet. But I wanted it to be, I wanted to fight for it.
People (New Yorkers, especially) love saying that New York is not America. They think the values I learned and embraced exist in New York in a way they don’t elsewhere. I was once one of them. But I no longer agree. I think New York, in its embrace of everyone for who they are, is America—it’s the way this country can be. There is no place more American than a city that shows it’s worth believing in a countrywide experiment with diversity and integration because it can work, if you keep at.
Just weeks after the election, I started my naturalization process in an immigration office in Brooklyn, inside a building with signs in Hebrew, where an officer with a Latin American accent took my biodata, and another gave me a booklet to prepare for my citizenship test. As I went through it, I made note of the chapters of American history I never wanted to be complacent about. The massacre of Native Americans. Slavery. Jim Crow. Internment camps. By becoming American—a white American—I knew it was going to be my responsibility, too, to try and make amends for that; to make this country, my country, as fair as it can be.
About a year later, on a sunny morning at the end of 2018, I entered a courtroom in Brooklyn with a couple hundred strangers from all over the world. I did not know the woman sitting next to me on the bench, smiling in her hot pink lipstick, her hijab beautifully wrapped around her head. I had never seen the older Asian lady in a neon yellow beanie with matching pom-pom, who sat at the end of the bench beaming with joy through her eyes and missing front tooth. I had never met the people sitting behind me, who bonded over being from the Caribbean, or the man who took his hat off as he entered the room, like he was entering church.
In the courtroom, the judge told us we were forever going to be ambassadors of our countries. That it was our role as Americans to protect and share our heritage and culture (oh, and I will). That we were going to make America by carrying forward our identities. An act of rebellion, I thought, against a global tide that increasingly seems to reject the different.
We left the room Americans, having held our hands up and sworn our allegiance to the United States. All of it. After the ceremony, I posed for pictures outside the court building, smiling as I held up my naturalization certificate in New York City’s best winter light. Around me, newly-minted citizens from all over the world, making their new country richer by adding to its ever-expanding culture their stories, languages, perspectives. Born-again Americans. E pluribus unum.