MANTACHIE – Michi Guess is about as Southern American as they come.
Her thick, Southern accent has been refined on cornbread, pinto beans and turnip greens. Despite having been born in South Korea, the blood pumping from her heart through her veins is as red, white and blue as the flag itself.
At the Fireworks Festival last weekend, it was Guess’ voice that capped off the night with an emotional rendition of the National Anthem. It came from deep down, deeper than many suspect, a voice pulled from years of private turmoil suddenly released in triumphant song. And with fireworks no less.
When she sang, it was the voice of America in its purest form. She knows what it’s like to have her freedom questioned, nearly stripped away, and be told that she couldn’t sing the anthem of the land she called home.
It all started 11 years ago with an attempt to visit her mother in Japan. Planning to travel with her husband, Guess learned when she attempted to secure her passport there was a problem with her citizenship. Turns out, she wasn’t one, at least not legally.
Guess and her brother, both natives of South Korea, were brought to the U.S. at young ages and raised by their biological grandmother, Itawamba County’s Exie Lesley. They were the products of the U.S. school system, raised and befriended by the people of Itawamba County. Since Guess was 4 years old, she called Itawamba County her home. The government didn’t see things the same way.
The Guesses received a phone call asking them to visit the Memphis office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to fill out some paperwork.
“They called it a ‘formality,'” husband Shay Guess said. “That ‘formality’ ended up being an arrest document for deportation.”
The U.S. government immediately tried to arrest and deport her, despite the fact that she had lived in Mississippi since the age of 4, worked and paid taxes since she was old enough to do so and had been married to a U.S. citizen for more than four years. They wanted to send her “home.”
“I was scared, terrified,” she said of the moment. “In that building where we were, you saw all of these people of different ethnicities in chains. I was just sitting there wondering if they were going to arrest me. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to go home with my husband.”
Since she had been in the United States for so long, the USCIS decided she wasn’t a flight risk and let her go home.
She was forbidden by threat of arrest from singing the National Anthem or repeating the Pledge of Allegiance or from participating in any patriotic events.
Fight, not flight
First and foremost, the Guesses had to fight the deportation process. Michi Guess was to be sent back to South Korea, a country which, despite being her birthplace, was completely foreign to her. She didn’t even speak a word of the language. It was a terrifying prospect.
The couple hired a Memphis lawyer to help fight the process. It took years and drained the Guesses of every dollar they had.
“The process emptied our entire life savings,” she said. “It took everything we had.”
After beating deportation, Michi Guess had to apply for her citizenship, prior to which she had to keep a green card for three years. Before receiving her citizenship, she was tested thoroughly, having to answer questions about the U.S. government that the average born-and-raised citizen likely couldn’t answer.
“The thing that aggravates me is that I have been living here since I was 4 years old. I’ve been working since I was 15 years old, a hard worker, paying taxes, and then I was slapped with this,” she said.
“We were mad at the government for a while,” Shay Guess admitted, his wife nodding in agreement. “But you come to a point where you stop worrying about what you can’t change. Your greatest victories come from your greatest battles. Faith had a lot to do with carrying us through it.”
On Dec. 5, 2008, 10 years and buckets of tears later, Michi Guess was nationalized, an official U.S. citizen after years of being just that.
Since being told it was illegal, Michi Guess hadn’t sung note one of the “Star Spangled Banner,” keeping her patriotism tucked deep away in her chest. On July 3, she raised her voice in tribute to the country that cost her 10 years of her life, setting free that love of the United States she had every right to deny. The day before she sang, she smiled, and said that the song would be “coming from the heart.”
“After getting my certificate of approval and actually becoming a United States citizen, it means everything to me,” she said.
Contact Adam Armour at (662) 862-3141 or email@example.com.
Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times