Last Thursday at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California, immigrants from 88 countries stood and raised their right hand and recited an oath of allegiance — “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty…”
At this moment, a news notification from the Washington Post popped up on cellphones: “Trump attacks protections for immigrants from ‘shithole’ countries.”
I was one of the 1,123 immigrants at the Paramount, standing in the auditorium, right hand raised, intently repeating the words through which we were to become Americans.
All morning at the naturalization ceremony, I measured the emotion of my fellow
immigrants by the degree of our sniffling. I was seated in the back rows of the full auditorium. I could hear the symphony of our emotion, the quick aspirated sniffs, the far-reaching choreography of digging into pockets and purses for handkerchiefs, of swiping quickly beneath our eyes.
We sniffle at the small choir singing “This Land Is Your Land.” We sniffled
when we were told in Chinese, Tagalog, English, French, and Spanish that we were welcome. We sniffled at the screening of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, especially at the words, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
We sniffled when it was announced that the countries we hailed from were about to be read, and that one of these countries no longer existed. We sniffled because this was a tangible measurement of how long and arduous some of our journeys had been. Then we sniffled at the sound of the nations we represented: Haiti, Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, India, Yemen, Syria, Iraq.
Being an immigrant is a malleable place, an in-between, a pending state. Through our oath, we were leaving that place. We were becoming something politically tangible.
Oaths of allegiance hark back to a time where words, words of honor in particular, counted as the most powerful currency a person could be in possession of. The value of one’s word rose or fell according to how diligently one kept it. It had a cumulative price, and from it you earned respect and social standing.
Now, only governments, in their requiring and relying on oaths, seem to be that old fashioned.
As an immigrant, the government has required of me countless oaths. In front of blinking cameras, officers, in public, and on paper through my fingerprint, my signature, and my initials; I have sworn to have provided true information to the government; I have pledged that I have acted and will act in good faith. Lying can get your papers revoked.
In the morning just before my oath ceremony I sat at a Starbucks a few blocks from the Paramount, having celebratory caffeine. I had wanted to slow down and reflect. I had wanted to tell my husband how when the opportunity for me to study in the U.S. presented itself, my family was not economically stable, and in Colombia my parents borrowed what we did not have.
For a year, my parents ate only rice and beans, and I wandered around Chicago burdened by the quest for something to accomplish that would equal what they had done for me. I had wanted to tell my American husband that you never satisfy that kind of emotional debt. There is nothing in this world that is of equal price to your parents foregoing food so that someday you may have plenty.
But instead of all of that, I was absorbed by my phone. I was reading about the 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador who had been told, as the 45,000 Haitians in November, that their Temporary Protected Status had been revoked. According to the Center for Migrations Studies, Salvadorans here under TPS have 192,700 American-born children who are U.S. citizens. Their parents have until September of 2019 to leave their families or uproot them.
In the auditorium at the Paramount we recited the oath, and then the allegiance to the flag. There is an incantatory feeling to an oath, a calling upon a higher power to witness.
We had been so nervous that when the speaker turned to exit the stage and spoke a quick “thank you” into the microphone, we repeated back “thank you,” then giggled realizing our mistake, us new Americans.
We were told to sit down. There would be a screening of a prerecorded message from the president. We grew quiet and still. Then a small square flashed in light on stage.
“My dear fellow Americans,” Donald Trump began. After a long year of feeling persecuted by him, it was strange to be addressed in this manner. “It is with great pride that I welcome you to the American family,” he said.
In a flash I recalled the Muslim ban, the infamous statements about Mexican
immigrants — was it really with great pride that he welcomed us to the American family?
In his message to us new Americans, Trump sounded stern and slightly annoyed, like he was talking to children. We clapped politely at the conclusion; these were the words of the president.
Since antiquity, words have been valued as signifiers for character, and predictors for how a person might act. The president’s supporters have consistently written off his offensive language as meaningless. In that the currency of Trump’s word — constantly populated by racist and sexist remarks, lies, half-truths and misguided statements — is worthless, they are correct. But his words are not meaningless. As commander in chief, his words shape policy. They place borders, move peoples, welcome some and remove others.
My first hours as an American were spent learning that the president had called Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries “shitholes” during a meeting about immigration reform. Whatever small feeling of welcome the president gave to us 1,123 new Americans, he undid the very same day.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras is the author of a debut novel, “Fruit of the Drunken Tree,” forthcoming from Doubleday in July of 2018.