Karen Zacarías, a playwright born in Mexico, followed last year’s presidential campaign and wished she could vote. Juliet Sanchez, a teacher born in Colombia, saw the protests that erupted after the election of President Trump and wanted desperately to join in.
On Friday, both women took the oath of citizenship at the National Archives in the District, vowing to use their newfound political rights as Americans to oppose a president who has made cracking down on immigration a cornerstone of his tenure.
“Nobody is going to take this away from me,” said a beaming Sanchez, 37, her father’s arm wrapped around her shoulders. “This is an amazing opportunity to be more vocal, to make more noise.”
In an ironic twist, she and the other 29 newly minted citizens who live in the District were the first to hear a new video with a welcome message from Trump, who exhorted them to embrace the “full rights, and the sacred duties, that come with American citizenship.”
A recorded presidential message has been played for new citizens at naturalization ceremonies since the administration of George W. Bush. Presidents also typically issue congratulatory letters. Critics of Trump’s immigration policies had speculated for months on when the president would debut his own welcome video and what his message would include.
“No matter where you come from or what faith you practice, this country is now your country,” Trump says in the message. New citizens, he says, share “the obligation” to teach American values to other immigrants and help them “assimilate to our way of life” — words that struck Sanchez as “disrespectful” to the cultures of other countries.
“We can and should respect, celebrate and embrace our new culture, but you shouldn’t tell us to assimilate,” Sanchez said.
Trump drew criticism last year on the campaign trail for saying that Muslims and other immigrants were failing to assimilate an American way of life.
He has thrown his support behind the Raise Act, a Republican proposal in the Senate that would slash legal immigration levels by half over a decade.
The Trump administration announced Sept. 5 that it would end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has shielded from deportation nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought here as children.
But the president indicated this week that he would support congressional action to keep DACA beneficiaries in this country — as long as any deal includes increased border security.
Zacarías, who came with her parents to the United States from Mexico as a child, applied for citizenship in January, determined to vote in 2020 for a candidate with a different agenda. Her voter-registration paperwork was in her purse Friday, she said, and she planned to mail it in as soon as possible.
“I watched this presidential campaign unfold, and I had so many opinions — but I didn’t have a voice,” said Zacarías, 48, who was joined at the ceremony by her husband and two actresses from her most recent play, “Native Gardens,” which was set to open at Arena Stage on Friday night.
In the video, Trump signaled that the United States should be the only home for American citizens, even though immigrants are allowed to maintain dual citizenship if their countries of origin allow it.
“America is our home. We have no other,” Trump says. “You have pledged allegiance to America. And when you give your love and loyalty to America, she returns her love and loyalty to you.”
The citizens taking the oath came from more than 20 countries, including Mexico, Eritrea and Pakistan. Not all were critical of the president.
Yacouba Ouattara, an engineering student at the University of the District of Columbia, said he is not political and had not followed the presidential election closely. Ouattara, 37, from Ivory Coast, said he liked Trump’s video message.
“If you want to become a citizen you have to respect the president,” he said.
Edtience Tenbrook, who was 3 years old when she fled civil war in Liberia with her mother, wore a bright-blue dress to the ceremony. She chose it, she said, because she thought it looked patriotic.
She has always wanted to become a citizen but only became eligible in 2013, when she married her husband, who is an American citizen.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Tenbrook, 34, who came to the United States with Temporary Protected Status. “I finally feel accepted in the country that I’ve always called home.”
Acting homeland security secretary Elaine Duke gave the keynote address during the ceremony, which kicked off a week of citizenship events nationwide at which more than 30,000 green-card holders will become citizens.
Describing a “lack of civil discourse on important topics” in today’s society, Duke encouraged those gathered at the archives to express their viewpoints constructively and engage in their communities.
“Vote in every single election,” she said. “Voice your ideas. Make your mark.”