ANN ARBOR, MI – Ann Arbor resident Kai Petainen has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, but it wasn’t until last year that he ever really worried about being deported.
A Canadian, he came to the U.S. legally, has been a legal permanent resident, and has worked legally for the University of Michigan.
But after Donald Trump took office and ramped up efforts to seek deportation of many immigrants, both documented and undocumented, Petainen saw how even green card holders could be detained and kicked out of the country for offenses such as shoplifting or marijuana, even if those offenses occurred years ago.
Though he didn’t have a criminal record making him deportable, Petainen no longer saw his green card as enough assurance that he could always live and work here and stay with his U.S.-citizen wife Naomi and their 3-year-old son Erik in the place they call home. So, he decided it was time to seek citizenship.
“When you’re a green card holder or permanent resident, you are worried of any little minor infraction,” he said Monday night, May 7, after taking the naturalization oath inside Ann Arbor’s city hall.
“Even driving here tonight, you think about the crosswalk laws. You worry about hitting a pedestrian. You worry about driving through a red light,” he said. “I live near a park, and to get to that park a lot of people go over the railroad tracks, and you worry that if you cross those railroad tracks, then am I going to get a federal charge for that? So, you worry about every little minor thing like that because you don’t know what you’re going to be kicked out of the country for.”
With his right hand raised, Petainen swore the oath of allegiance to the United States during Monday night’s Ann Arbor City Council meeting, officially making him a U.S. citizen.
He choked up and fought back tears toward the end as the significance of the occasion overwhelmed him. And then he smiled, looking back toward his family.
“Congratulations,” the federal magistrate said, after which Ann Arbor’s newest citizen and soon-to-be voter received a standing ovation from city officials and other residents in the audience.
“I thank you for this incredible honor, I’m proud to be an American, and may the USA bless others with love and hospitality,” Petainen said.
U.S. District Court Magistrate David Grand, husband of Council Member Julie Grand, administered the oath, which includes renouncing allegiance to any foreign state, agreeing to support and defend the U.S. Constitution and laws against all enemies, bearing arms on behalf of the U.S. if required and agreeing to perform non-combative service in the Armed Forces if required.
Petainen said he is still a dual citizen of both Canada and Finland in addition to now being a U.S. citizen.
While Monday night’s ceremony was a new experience, the council chambers on the second floor of city hall is a familiar setting for the 43-year-old Ann Arborite, who is a known friendly face to city officials, including those in both camps on City Council.
Petainen has been a close watcher of city hall for years and regularly attends the council’s meetings.
He often speaks out at the end of hours-long meetings, letting council members hear his take on the issues of the day, offering praise or polite criticism as he sees fit.
Petainen was scheduled to take the naturalization oath at the U.S. District Court in Detroit later this week alongside dozens of other immigrants on the verge of citizenship, but Julie Grand heard about it and pulled some strings to arrange a special ceremony for him.
Mayor Christopher Taylor gave a three-minute speech honoring Petainen before the ceremony, saying a good way to get involved and learn about what’s going on in the community is to regularly attend and participate in council meetings. He said Petainen has exemplified “sort of the ideal participant.”
David Grand said he appreciates Petainen’s calm optimism and hope about the future.
“I am incredibly proud and honored to become an American and to be here at City Council,” Petainen said, giving a speech of his own after the oath. “It’s here at City Council where I would sit and watch civil discussion and debate every other week, and sometimes those discussions would go until 1 a.m.”
Petainen said watching what happens at council meetings is part of why he wanted to become an American.
“Do you realize that not once did anyone on City Council ever make me feel like my opinion didn’t matter because I wasn’t American? Not once,” he told council members, indicating he actually has heard that line elsewhere, but never from anyone at city hall.
“You may have civilly disagreed with my political opinions, but every one of you made me feel important and that I mattered.”
Petainen was featured in the 2010 book “The Warren Buffetts Next Door” by Forbes Investment Editor Matt Schifrin.
“Kai Petainen, who teaches investments at the University of Michigan’s Ross Graduate School of Business and contributes to Forbes, has built a quantitative model that predicts which stocks institutional investors are going to find attractive,” Forbes wrote about him in 2013.
“By anticipating what institutional investors, the elephants of the investing world, are going to buy, Kai’s Marketocracy portfolio has a 10-year track record showing an annualized return of 18% a year.”
Out of fear, Petainen said he hasn’t spoken much about immigration, but he had some things he wanted to say Monday night.
He said English actor Patrick Stewart of “Star Trek” fame inspired him last year when he said he wanted to become a U.S. citizen to fight back against Trump’s agenda.
“Stewart realized that if you become an American, then you can get involved in fixing things and setting things right civilly,” he said.
Petainen said he realizes he’s fortunate it only took him four months to go from applying for citizenship to being naturalized, as many others are not as fortunate.
He said his faith teaches him that people are to love one another and show hospitality to strangers.
“And so, when I hear stories about how people with incredibly minor infractions are kicked out of the country, or how legal green card holders are denied entry, or how Dreamers are removed – it breaks my heart and it goes against the ideals of my faith,” he said. “And I know that City Council has been supportive of those who are not American and you represent some of the best of America. But I challenge those outside these halls, those who believe that we are to show love and hospitality to others – I challenge them to reach out and to help these non-Americans instead of kicking them out.”
He added, “For those who claim to prescribe to the faith of ‘love one another’ and that we are to ‘show hospitality to strangers’; I tell them that they should not treat non-Americans as poorly as the current president has. Show love. Show hospitality. Show what is right.”
In addition to his wife and son, Petainen was joined at city hall by his 70-year-old mother, Outi Petainen, who lives in Canada. She said she came with her family from Finland to New York City by boat when she was 8 years old and then took a train to Canada.
“It was right at the end of October we arrived,” she said of her journey as an immigrant 62 years ago.
“We had been on the Atlantic for seven days in real stormy weather and I felt like I would never stand up straight when I came off there. And then we were at the train station … waiting for a train to take us up to Quebec, where dad was going to be working in the mines.”
She said she heard that America was the land of milk and honey and things would be better than in post-war Finland.
But when she was sitting at the train station in New York, she said, she looked around and saw kids in “the worst kind of clothing I had ever seen in my life” and everybody was begging.
“And I thought, no, this doesn’t seem right that these kids are all begging,” she said. “They’re going from person to person with these paper bags and they have just barely any clothes on, all kinds of weird outfits. Well, little did I know it was Halloween night, and I was just dumbfounded. It was the biggest culture shock for me.”
She recalled going with her son to New York City two summers ago and finding her name still on the immigration registry, now on a computer system, from when she was 8.
She said witnessing her son become an American citizen Monday night was exciting for the whole family.
Kai Petainen said he came to the U.S. in 1997 under “fiance status” and married a great woman, but they later divorced. In order for his legal permanent resident status to be approved, he said, he had to prove to immigration authorities he got married in good faith.
He said time went on and then he met and fell in love with his current wife.
“We just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary, and we just adore our 3-year-old son,” he said.
The family stood together inside city hall Monday night as Mick Dedvukaj, the Detroit-based district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, handed off a new citizen packet that included a small American flag, a naturalization certificate, citizen’s almanac, U.S. passport application, and other documents and information.
Now that he’s a citizen, Kai Petainen said he was planning to register to vote at the city clerk’s office on Tuesday.
As he was studying for his immigration tests previously, he said, the study guide spoke about how federal law does not prohibit permanent residents from voting in local elections.
“However, I couldn’t vote in Ann Arbor because it’s state law that prevents permanent residents from voting,” he told council members. “You, as politicians, could work together with local and state politicians to change that law. Demonstrate diversity and show support for non-Americans by changing the law in Michigan to allow permanent residents to vote in local elections for local politicians.”