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Soeur Suong photographed at his home in Kent on May 23, 2016.

Image: Ian C. Bates

Soeur Suong’s family fled Cambodia’s political and civil unrest when he was just two years old. It would be several years before he began to understand what he’d left behind, and even longer still before he grasped what lay in front of him: green card paperwork, interviews, more paperwork, and an ill-advised attempt to vote that hung up his citizenship application for two years. But on May 12, 2016, with the help of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the 26-year-old became one of an estimated 680,000 people who will naturalize in the U.S. this year. Suong has always considered himself an American, but now he has the certificate to prove it. —Matthew Halverson


It’s hard for my mom to talk about Cambodia, so I don’t really know much. She just cries most of the time I try to get any details from her. It’s like reliving a nightmare for her. I’ve heard little horror stories, though. Like my aunt: Her husband was shot and killed, executed right in front of her. You don’t see that kind of stuff around here.

I think about Cambodia all the time. I’ve never been back, but going to visit is actually one of my aspirations.

My dad passed away in ’97, so my mom became a single working mom. I was pretty much left at my grandmother’s house. She nurtured me when I was going through my father passing away. She was a comfort, I guess.

I fit in in Seattle. The diversity is real out there. I’ve met so many other types of ethnic groups, so I’ve always felt like I belong. 

I didn’t know I wasn’t a citizen until my mom took me to the immigration place when I was in high school to get my permanent residence card.

It’s not where you’re born, it’s where you grow up. And I grew up here. This country is based on immigration. People from Europe came here. They were called pilgrims. So I guess I’m kind of a pilgrim too, right?

What do I think when I think about Donald Trump? Ignorant. 

I have a daughter, one year old. Me and her mom, we were high school sweethearts. But we’re not together anymore. So I don’t get my daughter often at all. 

During the 2008 and 2012 elections, I got swept up in the campaign. Apparently they thought I was a citizen, because they let me register to vote and sent me a ballot through the mail. I thought, I don’t know if I should vote or not, but I got this whole guilt trip from my daughter’s mom. So I sent in my ballot, but it turns out that it’s actually against federal law to vote if you’re not a citizen. 

I knew getting my citizenship was going to take a while. Because even when you submit the paperwork, it takes like two or three weeks just to get to where it needs to go. But I didn’t think it was going to take two years.

I tried to do it myself online and ended up paying like $200. Apparently that’s not even part of the actual process. It was just some scam. 

From what my mom told me, if you’re any type of felon, you can get deported. My cousin got deported already for some drug charges. And my brother? He’s in prison, and he’s going to get deported when he gets out. I think, Man, if that happened to me, it would ruin my daughter’s life. That’s another good motivation to want to do well.

I always have this thought of having my family together, like that structure. You have your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters. But since my brother is going to be out of the picture and my dad is already out of the picture—it’s just me, my mom, and my sister—the structure has gotten a little torn apart. So it’s like, Where do I go from here?

It happened on a Saturday. I came home and saw the letter from Homeland Security. I opened it and, boom, it says, “You are invited to come in on May 12 to take your oath to get naturalized.” I took a picture and sent it to everyone I know. It’s like graduating from high school, but more awesome.

I felt kind of numb when I took the oath. I already felt like a citizen, and I had already been through a lot, and I was all cried out from thinking about my daughter: What if they find that voting when you’re not a citizen is enough to deport you? You get the negative thoughts, but I try to channel them into something positive. 

I’m trying to be a full-time UPS driver. Hopefully put my daughter through private school and then have enough money left over for college for her. Pretty much my life is dedicated to her. 

You need money or credit in America. If you don’t have one, you have to have the other. I’m working on building my credit and saving some money.

I read this book, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, that my brother gave me before he went into prison. It talks about how important it is to leave a legacy. Because everything we have right now, it’s temporary, you know? Nothing really lasts. Sorry, I’m getting too sentimental.

It took a while to get where I’m at right now. I feel pretty badass.

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