Can Neil Young Ever Become a U.S. Citizen?
In early 1966, Neil Young was riding in a 1953 Pontiac hearse with Buffalo Springfield bandmate Bruce Palmer when he crossed the U.S. border illegally for the first time. “I made up my mind that someday I was going to sneak in,” he wrote in his 2012 memoir Waging Heavy Peace. “I targeted L.A. because that was where all the music was happening.” They told the U.S. immigration guard they were on their way to Vancouver, but were driving through the States because the roads were better. He permitted them through, not knowing that he’d stay for the next five decades or that the hearse contained six containers of weed. “We were laughing our way into the promised land,” he said.
Two years later, Young would be arrested in an infamous drug bust alongside Eric Clapton, Jim Messina, Richie Furay and others while jamming too loud at Stephen Stills’ home in Topanga Canyon. Young and Clapton were only found guilty of disturbing the neighbors; Stills fled the police by escaping out his back window. “I should’ve manned up,” he recalled in the 2019 documentary Echo in the Canyon. “I’ve never lived that down and felt awful about it ever since.”
More than fifty years later, the climate is drastically different than when Young first crossed the border. The Hall of Famer has been living in the States for more than 50 years, but he’s still not a citizen. On November 8th, days before his 74th birthday, he informed fans that his attempt to become naturalized had been delayed due to the “good moral character” provision on the immigrant application aka he has admitted to smoking too much weed. In a post titled “I Have Been Very Successful In My Life,” Young wrote that he wants to “be a dual citizen and vote,” and that he answered questions truthfully during the interview and passed the test.
The naturalization process consists of confirming your biographical information, taking an English reading test and answering 10 basic civics questions. Applicants must answer six of them correctly in order to pass. “I have been told that I must do another test, due to my use of marijuana and how some people who smoke it have exhibited a problem,” he said. He also noted former Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ policy memorandum, which states that an applicant involved in marijuana lacks good moral character. “I will keep you posted, but I don’t think I will be able to remain parked here during the proceedings,” he wrote.
According to several immigration lawyers, it won’t be as easy for Young as simply retaking the test. “If [an] officer doesn’t approve or refuse it, they will recommend it for approval for a person to have their swearing in,” says Anastasia Tonello, a New York immigration lawyer. “But that would typically go to another stage, like a supervisory level to approve it or to say that they need more checks.”
Even so, getting caught with weed over 50 years ago shouldn’t ostensibly affect Young’s naturalization. His application would be denied if he had appeared to lack good moral character during the statutory period of the last five years. During the interview process, Young admitting his marijuana use is what may have caused his application to be delayed. “As soon as he said yes, he set off this little chain reaction,” says Jonathan Grode, an immigration lawyer and adjunct professor at Temple University.
President Trump’s crackdown on the immigration policy has most likely played a role in delaying Young’s citizenship. The musician has been a fierce critic of him since he ran for president, even publicly speaking against his use of Young’s 1989 classic “Rockin’ in the Free World” at campaign events. Ironically, Trump has attended several Neil Young concerts in the past, even talking to Rolling Stone in 2008 to discuss his music. “He’s got something very special,” he said. “I’ve met him on occasions and he’s a terrific guy.”
So what can Young do to become a U.S. citizen? According to Carol Edward, an immigration lawyer who holds a dual citizenship with the United States and Canada, he has two choices. “If he’s denied naturalization, he can appeal the decision. And beyond that, he can file a lawsuit in federal court challenging their determination.”
For fans, speaking up would also help speed up Young’s naturalization in time for the 2020 election. “Free speech and public outcry is the basis for change,” says Grode. “Is it fair within the naturalization process to consider this an issue of good moral character? As more and more states are pushing towards medical marijuana and legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes, isn’t it time that our federal laws reflect the consensus of the nation?”
“We’re at a tipping point within our country as it turns on how we handle cannabis and marijuana usage,” Grode adds. “The more people that talk, the more people that step out the more people that complain, the greater chance you’re going to get political action because they see that as their constituents talking.”
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