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Immigrants of many ethnic backgrounds appear at a swearing in ceremony for US citizenship
Photo by P_Wei on iStock

In December 1985, dressed in a blue safari suit, I stepped on board a Pan American World Airways flight from Lungi International Airport in Sierra Leone bound for Dakar, Senegal, on my way to my final destination: the United States. 

Tucked in my luggage was a return ticket to Sierra Leone, which was required to obtain a visitor visa to America. As the plane sat on the tarmac, readying for takeoff, I looked back at the terminal.

I had no intention of returning.

My goal was to keep as low a profile as possible until I could obtain a green card and legally reside in the country. 

I eventually obtained U.S. citizenship, and would later learn just how valuable that citizenship was.

While being processed for prison, in 2009, I was visited by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. They wanted to ascertain my citizenship status. 

During that meeting, the agents told me that if I was not an American citizen, I would be deported after I finished serving my sentence.

I felt like I had won the lottery.

For many incarcerated people who are foreign-born and do not have citizenship, their eventual deportation hangs like a dark cloud over their heads throughout their sentence. 

Looming deportation is a source of stress, especially for individuals who have no support system to return to.

Many of them are green card holders, who lament the fact that they had stubbornly refused to obtain their citizenship, even though they had been eligible. They were conscious of the ridicule awaiting them upon their return home after spending so much time in the U.S.

That’s why I feel extremely fortunate to be a citizen. Regardless of all its flaws, America provides me with opportunities I do not believe I can have anywhere else in the world, especially with a criminal record. 

I will always refer to myself as an American citizen by choice.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

M. Yayah Sandi is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey. He requested that his first name be withheld.