Becoming an American in the Trump era
There came a time during Tuesday’s naturalization ceremony in Baltimore’s City Hall — the first one ever held there, as far as anyone knows — when the immigration officials running the show presented a video message from President Barack Obama.
The video, a remake of one recorded during the president’s first term, when he had fewer gray hairs, has been shown countless times to new citizens during Obama’s administration. The president, dressed in a dark suit and silvery-blue tie, appears to speak from a conference room, the American flag over his right shoulder. His tone is earnest and kind, vintage Obama.
His audience in the Curran Room at City Hall, their citizenship papers and miniature flags in hand, seemed captivated by the president’s high-minded words, appearing in subtitles across the bottom of the screen.
“Together we are a nation united not by any one culture, ethnicity or ideology but by the principles of opportunity, equality and liberty that are enshrined in our founding documents,” Obama said.
“Today marks a very special day in your life. You’ve traveled a long path to get here. You swore a solemn oath to this country, and now you have all the rights of citizenship.
“With the privileges of citizenship, though, come great responsibilities. And so I ask that you use your freedoms and your talents to contribute to the good of our nation and the world.”
I started to imagine what happens in the next year, with Donald Trump as president.
Trump looms large and heavy over everything these days. As Americans come to grips with his shocking election victory, we try to imagine him in the many roles Obama has served with steady and studied command for eight years — leading the nation out of the Great Recession that he inherited, overseeing the armed forces in a long war against terrorism that he inherited, consoling the nation after mass shootings, including the murder of children at Sandy Hook and the killing of police officers in Dallas.
Now, during a naturalization ceremony, I tried to imagine Trump, a man of severe countenance, the bullish billionaire who as a candidate stoked fears about immigrants, welcoming them as president. It was hard to imagine.
“Always remember,” Obama went on. “No dream is impossible. Like the millions of immigrants that have come before you, you have the opportunity to enrich this country through your contributions to civic society, business, culture and your community.
“You can help write the next great chapter in our American story. And together we can keep the beacon that is America burning bright for all the world to see.
“I am proud to welcome you as a new citizen of this country.”
The audience — 24 newly naturalized Americans from 17 countries, their relatives and friends — broke into applause.
I had gone to City Hall because I needed to feel good about something, and naturalization ceremonies usually do the trick. I’ve attended probably a half-dozen of them over the years, but this was the first time, as my new fellow citizens promised to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the United States, that I thought: I hope they know what they’re getting into.
White supremacists just spent the weekend in Washington celebrating Trump’s victory, and the president-elect scorched a lot of earth.
To be clear, Trump, for the most part, did not rail against immigrants who were in the country legally. His alarmist and nativist rants were aimed largely at immigrants here without legal documentation. But he associated the latter group with criminality, called for accelerated deportations — Obama’s record on that will be hard to beat — and called specifically for a temporary ban against Muslims entering the country while vowing to build a wall at the border with Mexico.
So while the immigrants assembled at City Hall on Tuesday all played by the rules — they got in line and followed instructions toward citizenship — there’s little about the next president that can be said to be welcoming toward outsiders. It is hard to imagine him in that video message to new citizens.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, with two weeks left in office, spoke eloquently at the ceremony, repeating something that became a hallmark of her administration: Baltimore welcomes immigrants, we don’t scare them off; we encourage them to seek citizenship and raise their families here. Rawlings-Blake knows that a good part of the city’s prospects for population growth — and the nation’s productivity — rests on immigrants.
“Our country’s diversity has always been our greatest strength,” the mayor said, and while that’s an article of faith for many of us, it apparently is not as widely accepted as we might like to believe. In fact, it appears that the politics of resentment countered the politics of diversity in the presidential election, by just enough to give us Trump. It’s not exactly a feel-good time in America.