The citizens-to-be, 36 people from 22 countries, gathered inside a gray government office in Virginia’s Fairfax County, where the official photo of former president Barack Obama had been taken down and that of President Trump had yet to go up.
“So, we will begin the check-in process now,” said a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official, ushering people in suits and dresses toward their last line, and on into the ceremony room.
There had been years of lines and waiting, and now came the final step in a process being upended for millions around the world at this very moment, if not for these lucky 36. They were about to be among the first people sworn in as new U.S. citizens in President Trump’s America, a place where all refugees are now barred from entry for the next 120 days, and citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations are barred for the next 90 days, and Syrian refugees are banned indefinitely, and thousands of Americans are protesting an executive order that would have affected some people in this room had the timing been different.
“It’s all working out very nicely — you see it at the airports,” Trump was telling reporters at the White House, as people at airports across the country were holding up signs that read “We are All Muslims Now” and chanting “Let them in.”
“At least India’s not on the list,” said Roop Ambardekar to his wife, Asmita, a physical therapist from India who was about to take the oath of citizenship on a chilly Saturday.
“You never know,” she said, filling out one of her last immigration forms.
“It seems like everybody is so short-tempered now,” said another man, here to see his Croatian wife become a citizen. A citizen himself, he said, he had arrived in the United States in 1999 as a refugee from Bosnia, when “people seemed more understanding.”
“That was the beauty back then. Now?” he said, shaking his head, explaining he did not feel free to discuss Trump because he held a government job. “I don’t want to get in trouble. Trump is the president. I work for the people, you see? We the people? The preamble?”
The preamble to the U.S. Constitution was printed on an orange silk banner hanging on a wall in the ceremony room where the 36 people — some who entered the United States as refugees, some on student visas, some on “lottery” visas — were taking their seats and included several from the countries whose citizens Trump was now barring from the United States.
Here came a woman from Iran, who sat by a framed poster that said “United from Diversity.” Here came a man from Iraq, who had worked for a U.S. contractor in Baghdad during the Iraq War, fled to Jordan and said of this moment, “It’s been a long road.”
Here came an Iraqi woman, Rafeef Hammad, wearing a headscarf and clutching her “new citizen” packet, and quietly saying, “I’m very happy, very happy.”
Her brother, Salah Hammad, who said he was not yet eligible for citizenship, sat in the friends-and-family section next to people from Bolivia and Burundi, Ethiopia and Ghana, Nepal and Pakistan. He said he had been a veterinarian in the Iraqi province of Babylon, where U.S. troops had a base in the ancient Hanging Gardens during the war, and now he was a stockroom worker at a PetSmart in suburban Virginia who wished to say that he, too, was “very, very, very happy.”
Salah Hammad, his wife and five sons were all still hoping to take the oath themselves, though now, he said, he was worried and confused about “the list,” and “a ban,” and the United States “not wanting Muslims.”
“We want to live in peace with other people, to learn English also,” he said in broken English. “All that we have heard from this president, I think it is not true, because in America, all people we love. All humans. All history. Only good persons come to America,” he said, echoing what Trump had said about welcoming only those immigrants who “love our people deeply.”
That was him, Hammad said, a person who loved America deeply.
Now an immigration official came into the room and explained that the time had come for people to turn in their old documents and green cards, and receive their new certificates of naturalization.
“Take very, very good care of them,” said the official, originally from Iran. “Don’t hole-punch them, don’t laminate them, don’t fold them, don’t throw them in the laundry.”
Now a screen rolled down for a video called “Faces of America,” and music began playing over a photo montage of a woman in a headscarf, a man wearing lederhosen, the Statue of Liberty, kids smiling out from a crowded boat landing at Ellis Island.
The man from Baghdad leaned forward. The woman from Babylon sat still watching, and when the video was over, another official stood at the lectern.
“Good morning!” he boomed to the candidates, who answered back softly.
“Something happened — let’s try that again,” he said, repeating. “Good morning!”
“Good morning,” came the slightly bolder response.
“Welcome to the ceremony,” he said, and as protests were swelling around the country, and lawyers were filing suits to block the detention of legal U.S. residents arriving at airports, and refugees were being ushered back onto planes bound for deportation, the 36 citizen candidates stood up for the national anthem.
“We put our right hand on our heart and face the American flag,” the official instructed.
The music began, voices in 22 different accents started singing, and after that came the roll call of nations.
“Argentina,” the official began.
A woman stood up, and people clapped.
“Colombia . . . Ecuador . . . Egypt . . . Honduras . . .” the official said to whoops and cheers, and when he came to Iraq, Rafeef Hammad stood and listened as the people clapped for her, too. Her brother Salah hoisted his cellphone to capture the fleeting moment.
“Nepal . . .” the official continued.
“Pakistan . . . Peru . . . Venezuela,” he said, calling the last candidate for citizenship, a social worker named Coralis Fernandez who has lived in the United States for 22 years, counsels immigrants and said before the ceremony that she has been telling them these days not to be afraid, “that liberties will prevail,” and that “what’s important here is that institutions are the same always. Men change, institutions are the same.”
She stood up now with all the others.
“Candidates for citizenship, are you ready?” the official said, and they all raised their right hands, swearing in unison to renounce “fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty” and “to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.”
“So help me God,” they all said.
People waved the tiny American flags provided in their citizenship packets as a last cheer went up in the room.
Not long after that, America’s newest citizens headed out to their cars, including Shakar Thanushkodi, a software engineer from India, who buckled his kids into his minivan. He said that he felt grateful, even if he did not feel the sort of relief he had once expected to feel on this day.
He said his wife, who was not yet a citizen, was anxious about her own future. He said he was anxious too — about her, about Trump’s executive order, about the president’s false allegations of voter fraud, about an America where people seem to be living in parallel realities, each disdaining the other.
“I’m able to say this out loud,” he said now.
He was happy about that. Happy to be able to express himself without fear, happy to be able to say how “truly worried” he was as an American citizen.