Alma Young was born at the border between worlds.
“If you look at a map, the very tip next to the Gulf, there is a river which separates Brownsville, (Texas) and, Matamoros (Mexico),” she said. “I was born right there.”
Because Young lived along the border and had family on both sides, she started crossing it regularly as a 7-year-old. She had a border-crossing visa and still has no idea how her mother obtained it because such visas are expensive.
Growing up in Mexico was tough, Young said.
“Even in Mexico, we moved a lot. That’s not something that started when we moved to the U.S. It was mostly because of poverty. We never had enough money to stay in one place," she said.
She said her father was a welder and her mother worked in American factories across the border.
“She worked for Fisher Price when I was little,” Young said. “Which is weird when I think about it because I never had any toys growing up. Yet, my mom made toys for a living.”
After her parents divorced, her mother decided to move the family across the border to the U.S. to be closer to her side of the family. Young said they came to the U.S. in 1993 when she was 11 years old. They crossed the border legally with the border crossing visa and stayed after it expired.
When it expired, they were stuck in the U.S. illegally. Young said they were given “illegal status” for about five years, at which point her mother started the applications to obtain legal residency cards.
“I think I was about 14 or 15, and I had a work permit,” she said. “My brother was even younger. I spoke to a lawyer and she said that she knew babies that have a work permit. That’s just the process you have to take. First, you have to have a work permit, then you can apply for residency.”
She said she obtained permanent residency status after her mother remarried, adding the only reason she got permanent-residency status was because of the marriage.
Young became an American citizen in 2012, after she held permanent resident status for more than five years.
“It’s a process,” she said. “It’s not like one day you become a resident and then the next day you can apply for citizenship. There are all these stages you have to go through, and it’s not like you can do each one back to back to back, even if you did have the money and time and resources. You have to wait so many years before you can do the next step.”
Coming to America
The process can vary for everyone coming to America.
Some do whatever they can to find a better life for themselves.
Others escape desperate situations and look to the U.S. for refuge.
Others become American citizens for reasons such as marrying an American and wanting to make things easier for their children.
Whatever the reason, about 700,000 people become U.S. citizens every year, according to the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services.
The SunLight Project — representing Valdosta, Tifton, Millidgeville, Dalton, Thomasville, Ga., and Live Oak, Fla. — spoke to several people who were born in other nations but came to America for a new life. The SunLight reporters asked what being an American means to them and what brought them to the home of the brave and the land of the free.
These are not stories about foreigners becoming Americans.
These are American stories.
Young said she was "very, very lucky" in her process to become a citizen. If her mom hadn't remarried, they would have stayed in illegal status and there would have been no way for her to become a resident or citizen, she said.
"Unless I was a victim of abuse or trafficking," she said. "Other than that, there’s no path for citizenship for anyone who is illegal in this country. You have to be the victim of a crime or you have to marry a citizen, and even then people are reviewing your case, so it’s up to them to decide whether or not your claim is valid, so it may never happen.”
Without legal status, there would be no way for her to get a job or drive.
“I would just be that burden they make us out to be,” she said. “If you just give us the opportunity we can do so much more to help.”
Young is married with a small child and works at Valdosta State University as director of the College Assistance Migrant Program, which helps students with a migrant, agricultural or seasonal farm working background apply for financial aid to attend college.
“The students I work with have to be citizens or permanent residents because we are a federal grant,” Young said. “But a lot of times their parents or siblings are undocumented.
“People say, ‘Well, if they come here illegally …' I came to this country legally. I stayed illegally. That’s actually how most immigrants get into this country. Just from my personal experience and the experience of students I’ve worked with, if you give them that opportunity, they will take it and run with it and try the best they can to give back to the country that gave them that opportunity.”
For people to give back, they must be offered the chance to succeed, but many are denied the chance by the dice roll of fate.
Land of Probability
Celine Gladwin was one of the lucky ones.
She and her family managed to escape the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, which claimed the lives of about 120,000 people during a 15-year period of time.
Gladwin was born about the time the war started in 1975. She said she can't even remember what started the war, but her hometown of Jbeil remained a neutral zone for most of it.
"It was a beautiful place," Gladwin said. "It was not unusual for me to be playing on Roman ruins. It used to be called the Paris of the Middle East."
But signs of war were always present.
Refugees from the surrounding conflict trickled into the town and fighting broke out to the north and south of the city. The fighting continued until, when she was 15 years old, things became untenable. That was when her mother decided it was time to leave Lebanon.
"Things got bad that year," Gladwin said. "Luckily, my brother left earlier in the war for America and had made a life there. He got his citizenship and had a family. He helped us get humanitarian visas."
Before they could come to America, the family had to find a U.S. embassy, which Lebanon didn't have at the time. So, she and her family boarded a cruise ship transporting people away from the conflict to the island of Cyprus about 150 miles away in the Mediterranean.
From there, they traveled to Cape Coral, Fla., arriving in 1990.
They began a new life in a strange new land.
Her brother, who left Lebanon early in the war, helped his family tremendously, she said. Without his help, she doesn't know what they would have done. However, his help could only go so far.
"The transition was horrible. It was rough," Gladwin said. "Everything was new to us. We didn't speak the language and the American school system — it was different."
She said school was a mixed bag. She did well in school, but was bullied for being a foreigner and for how she spoke.
America was in the early phases of the Persian Gulf War. When kids learned she was from the Middle East and from a majority Muslim country, they teased her and asked derogatory questions such as what was it like seeing bathrooms for the first time.
But Gladwin made strong bonds with her teachers. She fondly remembers Mrs. Henderson and her school guidance counselor helping her through the toughest times at school, while she struggled through learning English and her new home's culture.
"I was engulfed in the culture, in the society," Gladwin said. "In the beginning, I was going through the motions. The next step was to get my green card, so I did. I didn't think that I was never going home until I started my own family here."
Getting a green card took nearly three years after arriving in the U.S.
It took longer to become a citizen.
"To me, there was no question about becoming a citizen. There was nothing to think about," she said. "This is it. This is home. When you're here, you are an American. There wasn't another decision to be made."
Now, Gladwin has a family, her own architecture firm situated in Downtown Valdosta. She sits on the Greater Lowndes Planning Commission. By any standard, she has lived the American dream.
From her first step on American soil, Gladwin said she knew what she wanted to do, and she was determined to make it in this country. With a bit of luck and a lot of willpower, the U.S. offers all of the opportunities a person needs to be successful, she said.
"The opportunities that were available to me are still here. It's what we make of them," she said. "Immigration has always been important to this country. My hope is that this country can have a comprehensive and fair immigration system. We just need to be human to one another. I mean, this country is built on immigration."
A New Home
Although remarkable, Gladwin's story is not unique. Many hardworking people come to America where they earn citizenship and success.
Erika Silva Wyatt, a Bogata, Colombia, native came to the U.S. when she was 18 years old. She joined her father and stepmother, who lived in Douglas.
Wyatt, a Cairo resident and Spanish teacher at Thomas County Central High School, was studying in Costa Rica, July 4, 2017, when she joined other American citizens in an Independence Day celebration.
Of the trip, she said she missed her adopted country, the country where she is now a citizen. She said she cried, wishing she were back home in America.
Having completed high school in Colombia, Wyatt spent five years learning English and American culture. She learned about Thanksgiving, attending church, Christmas and fellowship in the South.
"People were so warm," Wyatt said. "I didn't know what to do, so I smiled."
She had to get used to a few things. Grits were new to her, but she now likes the Southern staple, and the first time she opened a refrigerated biscuit dough container, the loud pop scared her.
"In the beginning, (everything) was overwhelming," Wyatt said.
She said she learned by becoming involved.
"I had to get out of my comfort zone. I love the culture here," she said.
She decided to become an American citizen because she wanted to vote for people who would represent her. Her two brothers — a certified public accountant and a member of the U.S. Marine Corps — also became U.S. citizens after emigrating from Colombia.
Wyatt and her husband, John Wyatt, have two children. She teaches upper-level Spanish at the high school, as well as the school's class for native speakers.
"She is gifted, certified and very dedicated to her students and our school," said Trista Jones, principal. "She is an active member of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators and attends conferences to stay up to date on current issues and legislation affecting education."
Wyatt recalled while living in her home country hearing about Hollywood movies, American victories in world wars and Americans as humanitarians.
The image of America throughout the world attracts people to the country.
As a child growing up in Pakistan, T.J. Kaikobad was enthralled by John Wayne movies, and 50 years later, he said the Duke remains a touchstone for him.
"Whenever I think about the tough problems facing our nation or the state, the ones that don't have a clear answer, I ask myself, 'What would John Wayne do?'" he said. "If you ask me 'Was John Wayne a Republican or a Democrat?' I'd say 'Yes.' He believed in strength, in standing up for yourself, in being independent — all things that Republicans believe in. But he also believed in protecting those who can't protect themselves, in fairness — things that are perceived of as Democratic values."
Kaikobad, who now owns Cyra's restaurant in Dalton, said he wanted to come to America because of John Wayne movies.
"But that wasn't the determining thing. The city I was born and raised in wasn't large enough to have a U.S. consulate," he said. "But it had something called the United States Information."
It had a library with books about the United States. It also screened documentaries every week, including one called "A Day on an American Farm." Kaikobad saw it when he was about 11 or 12, and through the years, he said he must have watched it at least 20 times.
"Even now," he said, "I can look into space and recall scenes from that documentary."
Kaikobad was captivated by the images of the boys in the film "with their buzzcut hair" waking up early, working on the farm and then going to school and then coming home to have dinner with their family.
"I don't recall this part, but my mother tells me that after I saw it the first time, I told her 'I want to go to America. I want to live in America.' She said, 'One day you will.' And I said, 'I want to go tomorrow,'" he said.
Kaikobad came to the U.S. when he was 18 years old in November 1976 to study international relations and political science at Indiana University.
"My goal at the time was to join the (Pakistani) Foreign Service and become a diplomat. My dream was to become the ambassador to the United States. I wasn't ready to let go of Pakistan, but I wanted to be in America. It's hard to cut the ties with your native country. I wanted it both," he said.
But Kaikobad said he was "hurt and shocked" by some of the things he heard on campus.
"We were still in what I call the Vietnam syndrome," he said. "I was hearing the military called baby killers, and people were talking about Americans like we were the lowest form of life. I had some pretty heated arguments defending the United States."
People from Pakistan are pretty common now, he said. They are doctors and teachers and scientists. But back then, he was a novelty, and people always wanted to know "What do you think of America? How does it compare to all of the other places you've been?"
"And my answer then and now is that it's like an automotive race," Kaikobad said. "You've got 130 nations, 130 cars in the race. One-hundred-twenty-nine of those cars are Ford Pintos and one is a Ferrari."
While at school, he made a big change in his professional plans.
His college roommate, who was also his cousin, was complaining about his work in a restaurant. Kaikobad said it couldn't be that bad.
"He bet me $50 I couldn't last two weeks," he said. "I had long hair at the time, so they wouldn't let me be a server. I got a job, they called it a wine steward. It was really a wine clerk."
Kaikobad threw himself into the work, impressing the restaurant's maitre d'.
"He said 'You get your hair cut. I'll make you a server.' I was having so much fun, I said, 'OK.' I enjoyed it so much, I took a one-semester sabbatical from school. By the end of that time, the maitre d' was joining another company in another town. So they offered the position to me. So I decided to take a second semester sabbatical."
By the end of the semester, the restaurant business was in his blood.
Kaikobad said he first started thinking about becoming a U.S. citizen after the Soviet Union invaded Pakistan.
His hometown was 50 miles south of the border of Afghanistan, he said. Millions of refugees came across the border. Some of them squatted on land his family owned. It was a difficult situation, especially for his mother.
"One of the strong cultural beliefs in Pakistan is that if someone comes to your house seeking refuge, even your worst enemy, you must give them the same hospitality you would your greatest friend," Kaikobad said. "At the same time, it quickly became apparent this was a precarious situation."
A situation made worse, he said, by Arabs coming to the region because they wanted to fight the Soviets.
He realized returning home to Pakistan would be too difficult, even dangerous, he said. At the same time, in America, his career in the restaurant industry was thriving.
He was hired by a firm in Atlanta in the 1980s. So he began the process of applying for permanent residence and, later, citizenship.
Living the Dream
After living in America for eight years, Martita Jones is living her American dream.
Jones came to America in 2010 after marrying her husband, Mike, whose sister Amanda introduced them while visiting her in Nicaragua.
“I didn’t speak any English and he didn’t speak any Spanish at the time,” Martita Jones said.
She said growing up she always loved the English language and wanted to learn.
“My stepfather, who worked at the American Embassy as a security guard, would always bring me books in English,” Jones said.
After they started dating, she told Mike she wasn't interested in leaving her country. She dreamed of finishing her social work degree and helping people.
“Mike agreed to stay because he fell in love with Nicaragua, the language and the culture,” she said.
Their son, Michael, was born in May 2010 in Nicaragua.
“We plan, but God has his plans for us,” Jones said.
Michael’s lungs were underdeveloped and he wasn’t getting better. The family moved to Maryland with Mike’s family to get medical care. Doctors said Michael needed time for his lungs to develop, but overall, he was healthy.
“We always say Michael wanted to live in America from the start,” Jones said.
The original plan was to only stay a few months, just enough time for Michael to get his health back. However, Mike found a good job, and they ended up staying longer than expected.
Stories of how people found their way to America and became a U.S. citizen have many twists and turns.
For many, it's a love story.
An American goes overseas to a new country, falls in love and returns home with a partner.
They start a family, and from there, their partner has a decision to make: whether to give up their old home for a new one in America.
The SunLight Project – representing Valdosta, Tifton, Millidgeville, Dalton, Thomasville, Ga. and Live Oak, Fla. – spoke with these couples in observation of the Fourth of July to better understand what it means to be an American, to be someone who came to this country to start a new life.
Martita Jones said she was sad to leave her country, and with her poor English, she was initially terrified when they went out in public.
“I was terrified when we went out to eat,” she said. “I was worried they would make fun of the way I talk or my accent.”
Undeterred, she kept learning and practicing.
After living in three larger cities in Florida, the Jones moved to Live Oak, Fla., in 2016, where there are about 2,500 foreign-born residents, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
She began working at Branford High School as an English language learner paraprofessional.
“I fell in love with my job,” Jones said. “God has a purpose for us to be here.”
Co-worker Dan Taylor encouraged Jones to become an American citizen. She said he printed off study material for her and helped her study for the interview. She had been eligible to apply for a few years but had put it off.
She was also inspired to apply after someone stole her wallet, which had her green card inside. Seven months later, it was returned with everything inside, including her green card. But she said she didn't want to worry about it getting lost again.
So, she sent in her application at the end of September 2017 and had her interview in January 2018. She took her oath on Feb. 22, along with 35 other newly declared U.S. citizens who represented 29 countries.
“I believe, if you work hard and trust in God, you can achieve your dreams,” Martita Jones said. “I put my heart and soul into everything I do. I feel like God is really using me.”
Starting a New Life
John and Asha Downy, a Milledgeville couple, originally met in Asha’s home country of Nepal.
In the three years since Asha moved to America, she has begun the process of integrating into American culture and society, both in the eyes of the U.S. government and the people of Milledgeville and Baldwin County.
“I was doing some mission work in Nepal, and her family introduced me to her,” John said, recalling the first time he and Asha met. “That was back in 2012 on a 10-day trip, and the next year I came for about two months.”
They got married two years later.
In the four years since John and Asha married, the two have been working on starting a new life for themselves in Milledgeville. While John’s local barn and shed business keeps the couple financially afloat, the couple has faced many challenges in securing Asha a green card.
Having a green card allows a person to live and work permanently in the United States. The steps a person must take to apply for a green card will vary depending on his or her individual situation.
John said the process is long, costly and time-consuming - Asha was forced to wait an extra year for her official card after the government omitted her middle name.
“Shortly after we got married, we started working on the process, and it took probably a year and three months," John said. "We got married in her hometown in Nepal, but we only had a ceremony, and she was able to come over on a fiancee visa and we got married here.”
Asha said it has taken time to adapt to her new home.
“Communication was difficult for me because I’m (already) a shy person," Asha said. "And I would get so nervous so fast whenever other people talked."
Not only did she leave behind a hard life in the mountains of Nepal. She had to leave her family.
Because Asha and her five sisters stayed with an uncle in a more urban area, they received a better education than most Nepalese. Many people in her parents’ village barely attended school and survive mostly on subsistence farming, she said.
The couple is discussing the possibility of some of Asha’s sisters eventually moving to Millegdeville. They hope to attend an American university.
Family, however, isn’t the only thing Asha misses from home.
“For the first year, being away from my family was the toughest part, but now I’ve gotten settled in a little more. The second toughest part is the food,” she said with a laugh.
It’s about a 2,800-mile drive from Moultrie to the Mexican state of Hidalgo.
But sometimes, distance is about more than a simple matter of geography.
Austin Kenneth Lane hardly knew the country or the central Mexican state where he was born. That’s because he was brought to the U.S. four months after his birth.
His mother, a U.S. citizen, had accompanied her boyfriend to Mexico at the age of 15 which accounts for his name.
Lane is a 22-year-old Colquitt County Sheriff’s Office employee and part-time farmworker. He works at the jail.
For him, becoming a U.S. citizen was a little confusing and quick.
“Mom came up to me and said we have to take a trip to Mexico,” he said. “When we got there, we had to get my birth certificate. We had to go all the way to where I was born (a very small town in Hidalgo). There was nothing there. There was one store on the street owned by my grandmother.”
Then, mother and son had to have their mouths swabbed for a DNA test to prove kinship. Unfortunately, the man at the consulate building was not cooperative and told Lane’s mother he couldn't help her, causing her to become distraught.
“He called us back in and said he was very sorry,” Lane said. “Dad took her to Mexico without my grandmother’s permission. Grandma took out a missing-child report on my mom. In the eyes of the law, it looked like she was forced to have me over there. That helped me a lot to get the papers.”
As Lane remembers, his mother paid $1,200 in expenses related to authorities during the trip.
“I still had to stay a year and four months before I could come back,” he said.
That meant his ninth-grade school year was spent in the country of his birth, where Lane was unfamiliar with both the environment and language. There, he made friends who became his Spanish teachers, and in return, he taught them English.
When it came time for him to make a decision on where to live, it was a relatively simple answer, he said. After all, his family was in the U.S.
When he made it back to his home, Lane still remembers the thrill of getting his driver’s license, a major step into adulthood and his first, real piece of photo identification. He also remembers the proud feeling he gets identifying himself as an American.
Lane and his wife, Maria, who also has an American-born parent and was born in Cairo, have a 5-year-old son Isaiah and 4-year-old daughter Avah.
“There are amazing people down there,” he said of Mexico. “I still have some friends down there that I talk to to this day. (Some) of them are trying to come up here and work.”
Lane said he enjoys his job and would like to get out on the road as a patrol officer, but he does have a Plan B.
“I love farming,” he said. “If I ever quit the sheriff’s office, that’s what I’m going to do – farming.”
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Thomas Lynn, Alan Mauldin, Eve Guevara, Alan Mauldin, Patti Dozier, Will Woolever and Jessie Box.