The Social, Cultural, and Legal Challenges of Dual Citizenship

6 min read

As part of my doctoral research at the University of Minnesota, I conducted a study with the objective of offering a precise understanding of the dilemmas faced by immigrants when contemplating the process of naturalization to become American citizens. Its relevance extends to all newly arrived immigrants in the United States, and some key takeaways are described here.

My research focused on the experiences of both Yemenis in America, who have not obtained U.S. citizenship, and Yemeni Americans, who are either naturalized or born as U.S. citizens. Specifically, the study explores their encounters within U.S. higher education institutions (HEIs). Because many are native Arabic speakers, Yemenis in America and Yemeni Americans often communicate in English as a second language, frequently marked by a discernible foreign accent that can pose challenges to effective verbal communication.

One particular interview, conducted in Arabic, involved a participant known as Mohammed (a pseudonym used to safeguard anonymity). Presented here is an excerpt from our extensive two-day conversation, edited for clarity and relevance.

Mohammed, who hailed from the northern region of Yemen, distinguished himself academically in high school, earning a prestigious scholarship from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Yemen to pursue higher education in the United States. Opting for Mississippi due to its vibrant Yemeni community, Mohammed found a supportive network offering not just ethnic solidarity but also spiritual and financial assistance to newly arrived Yemeni students.

Sharing accommodation with three fellow scholarship recipients, all part of his scholarship cohort, he predominantly conversed in Arabic within his household. However, Mohammed faced challenges in integrating with American peers during his academic journey, resulting in limited opportunities to engage in English outside of the classroom. Consequently, his English proficiency, though progressing, ranged from a beginner to an intermediate level, making obvious his status as a native Arabic speaker.

Upon completing his studies at a community college in Mississippi, Mohammed encountered a significant dilemma that significantly altered the trajectory of his life as an international student in the United States. Abiding by his Yemeni cultural values, he abstained from engaging in any form of romantic relationship with women, adhering strictly to the cultural norm that reserves sexual activities for marriage. Faced with the complexities of romantic culture within the U.S. HEIs and compelled by his cultural principles, Mohammed chose to expedite the marriage process with a Yemeni girl.

However, this decision posed a considerable challenge as Yemeni American girls often demand a substantial dowry, particularly if the prospective bride is an American citizen. This practice is largely due to the acknowledgment that marriage serves as the most viable pathway to attain naturalized U.S. citizenship, prompting many Yemeni American families to include this legal advantage as a financial component within the dowry negotiations.

According to Mohammed, the idea of marrying a Yemeni American girl became so compelling that it significantly affected his ability to concentrate on his studies. Motivated by the need to fulfill his emotional and cultural obligations, Mohammed was driven to seek marriage at a young age. His determination to establish a permanent life in the United States led him to aspire to attain naturalized U.S. citizenship, a status that would transition his temporary F-1 visa—which restricted employment opportunities and long-term residency—to a more stable and secure position allowing him to reside and work in the United States indefinitely.

In pursuit of this goal, Mohammed embarked on extensive research and engaged with the local community, ultimately identifying a prospective bride whose family required a dowry of $30,000, in addition to the traditional expenses of a Yemeni American wedding totaling $20,000. Confronted with this financial obstacle and limited by his $500 monthly scholarship stipend, Mohammed made the challenging decision to temporarily halt his education and seek employment, taking up illicit work as a gas station clerk, where he was paid in cash.

Through dedicated labor and stringent savings, he managed to amass the necessary $50,000 to propose to the girl, with whom he had never previously interacted or courted in the conventional American manner. Undeterred by American cultural norms, Mohammed remained steadfast in upholding the traditional Yemeni standards of romance and marriage, exemplifying his unwavering commitment to his cultural heritage even while residing in the United States.

After arriving in the United States as an international student in 2015, Mohammed’s journey culminated in his marriage in 2018 and subsequent naturalization as a U.S. citizen in 2022. Overwhelmed with joy at attaining his long-sought-after U.S. citizenship, Mohammed embarked on a trip to Saudi Arabia, anticipating a more favorable reception due to his newfound status. To his dismay, however, Saudi authorities—perplexed by the disparity between his traditional Yemeni appearance, speech, and behavior, and his American citizenship—raised doubts regarding the authenticity of his U.S. passport.

In his efforts to assert his American identity, Mohammed encountered skepticism and suspicion, underscoring the complexity of navigating the intricate dynamics of dual citizenship in a global context. Despite his attempts to leverage the support of the American embassy in response to instances of discrimination by local authorities, Mohammed’s experiences, along with those of one of his Yemeni friends—a fellow naturalized American citizen imprisoned in Malaysia for possessing a small quantity of marijuana—revealed the limitations of the diplomatic intervention that the American embassy could provide in such circumstances. This stark realization underscored the boundaries within which diplomatic entities can operate, highlighting the challenges faced by individuals holding dual citizenship when navigating the legal and social complexities of different nations.

Mohammed’s narrative serves as a poignant reflection of the aspirations shared by numerous Yemeni international students, driven by a fervent desire to attain American citizenship through whatever means necessary. Some even contemplate enlisting in the U.S. Army, viewing it as a potential expedient for navigating the complexities of visa and immigration procedures. Within this context, the notion that the desired outcome justifies any method becomes increasingly prevalent.

Amidst this pursuit, Mohammed and his peers often remain unaware of the intricacies that characterize the functioning of the U.S. legal system, both domestically and internationally. In their pursuit of naturalized U.S. citizenship, they may overlook historical events, such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 in 1942, leading to the unjust incarceration of 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent, the majority of whom were American citizens. Similarly, they may disregard the impact of executive orders, such as those signed by Donald Trump, which restricted the entry of citizens from Muslim countries, including Yemen, into the United States.

Enthralled by the allure of U.S. citizenship and the associated global influence, Mohammed and others often concentrate solely on the perceived advantages, failing to fully consider the intricacies and limitations of their dual citizenship from Yemen and the United States. This omission underscores the significance of acknowledging the broader complexities and implications inherent in the pursuit of citizenship within a multifaceted socio-political landscape.

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