Taking the Proper Path to U.S. Citizenship

I will never forget the words as long as I live. I was reminded of the importance of them as I watched masses of Haitian migrants pile up along the border in South Texas last month, and as the news broke this week about a record number of immigrants illegally gaining entry into America.

"You're not a U.S. citizen until you take the following Oath of Allegiance," a federal judge in a Chicago courthouse said to us as he motioned us to rise. As we all rose to obey his command, our hearts were beating fast as we recited the oath many of us had committed to memory.

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic," the oath began. "I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me God," it ended.

"Congratulations, you are now citizens of the United States of America," the judge pronounced to 50 or so excited new citizens. Tears of joy flowed that day in May 2004. I'm an American at last!

As I closed my eyes in thanksgiving, my mind flashed back to the beginning of the process 11 years earlier, and my first U.S. visa interview in Kampala, Uganda. We knew him as Mr. Robert, the most notorious American consul general in East Africa. He denied nearly 100 percent of young visitor visa applicants, and for good reason: We rarely returned.

After lots of prayer and pleading, Mr. Robert issued my visa. On that sunny spring afternoon in 1993, I landed at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Everything looked so big. The roads. The cars. Even the people were big. There were big buildings called skyscrapers, which made for a spellbinding skyline.

There I was, a black man from Uganda, the onetime Pearl of Africa destroyed by Idi Amin, in sheer awe of everything around me. It was a stark and unimaginable contrast to life in my homeland. Under Amin's rule, 500,000 Ugandans were murdered (it was a country of 12 million), and rape, theft, brutality—all were day- to-day norms. Unlike America, the police really did hunt down innocent black people. When we saw police, we ran. Or hid. The same with the military. They were there not to serve us but themselves. And our dictator's whims.

Indeed, Amin's secret police ran "interrogation centers" housed throughout Kampala. One of them, the State Research Bureau, was located two miles from my home. We'd walk by it on our way to church, and it wasn't uncommon to see bloodied men and women being pulled out of trunks of unmarked police cars.

If Amin's reign of terror wasn't enough, AIDS ravaged Uganda. The disease had a nickname—SLIM—because its victims began experiencing drastic weight reduction days after infection. The disease decimated entire villages, killing so many adults that kids were often left to raise their siblings. SLIM took my dad's life, as well as many fathers and mothers around me. When Amin finally fled the country, there were celebrations everywhere. They didn't last long, as Uganda soon descended into tribal warfare.

Immigrant scales border wall
A man tries to scale the border wall in San Luis, Arizona, while attempting to cross into the U.S. from Mexico on October 8. Photo by Nick Ut/Getty Images

All of which explains why it was impossible to capture in words the wonders of America. I was captivated by the place and the people, who came from every conceivable country and worshipped in every conceivable way—including not worshipping at all. I marveled at how Americans lived and loved. How they intermarried, ate each other's food, listened to each other's music—and how peacefully and beautifully they lived together.

But what was most remarkable was America's unique government—and Constitution—that anchored this great democracy. In Uganda, high office belonged to the guy with the biggest guns. In America, there were free and fair elections. And property rights, an independent judiciary and freedoms few people in the world could imagine. Not enough Americans, I observed, were grateful for this inheritance.

On May 4, 1996, I married my white Romanian sweetheart, Ingrid, in Chicago. She too grew up in a country tortured by a brutal dictator and his band of "special police." His name was Nicolae Ceausescu, and the Communist butcher's reign of terror lasted from 1965 to 1989. Her family escaped that ordeal, and they too went through the lengthy process of becoming legal American citizens.

It was after my marriage that I began the journey to adjust my immigration status. It was complicated and expensive. After a few bumps in the road, I found a diligent lawyer who tracked my stalled application and successfully processed my adjustment of status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He was standing next to me at my induction ceremony.

With all of that as background, legal immigrants like me have been watching with dismay as masses of immigrants willfully break our laws and simply walk into our country. It's not their fault entirely. They are doing it because they believe there will be no consequences. In fact, they are breaking our laws with the encouragement of our elected leaders. And their media enablers too.

Worst of all, black immigrants like me are watching African American leaders accuse our Border Patrol agents of being racists for doing their jobs, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus like Representative Maxine Waters. Those same black leaders are using the charge of racism against anyone who opposes what is essentially an open border policy. That tactic is itself racist, one many Americans who were born in Africa reject. And they reject it because it mirrors the toxic tribalism that brought millions of blacks like me to America's shores.

Many of the open border advocates are the very same people who decry my adopted home as a white supremacist nation, which begs the question: If America is so racist, why encourage black and brown people to come here?

The truth is, I sympathize with my black and brown brothers and sisters who want so desperately to live in America. Few understand their plight better than black people like me. But what they're doing isn't just unlawful; it's inherently immoral. And for anyone who doesn't agree, try cutting to the front of the line at your local movie theater and watch the reaction. Or a line at Magic Mountain. And imagine how those of us who waited in line and followed the rules feel watching folks show up at the border expecting a free pass to America.

The fact is, if America doesn't enforce the rules of immigration fairly and consistently, what incentive will any immigrant have to go through the legal process of becoming an American citizen?

One thing I know for certain: The American promise I've experienced for three decades—where anyone can come with just the shirt on their backs, work hard, stay out of trouble and change their life trajectory—is real. I know also that the borders to this fertile soil, which for over two centuries has grown countless dreams, must be protected. There's no delicate way to say this, but without borders, there is no country.

And so I say to my Haitian, Brazilian and Jamaican brothers and sisters, and anyone else planning to call America home, I love you all. But if you wish to settle or emigrate here, don't just show up at our border. Please go home, get in line and do it legally, as the rest of us did.

As for my fellow Americans who approve of the open border policy being enacted before our eyes, consider the pleas of legal immigrants like me who played by the rules and object to those immigrants who don't.

You can call them "undocumented workers," "migrants" or "irregular migrants" to feel better about yourselves, but you're insulting the millions of us who respected and obeyed America's immigration laws.

So many of us are black like me.

Dennis Sempebwa is an author, educator and president of THE 300, a ministry training college, and the lead pastor of Ekklesia, a global online church. He lives with his family in Texas.