Presidential Naturalization Speeches and the Politics of Belonging
I have never once heard my mother refer to herself as an “American.” Instead, it’s: “The Americans across the street are hosting a party tonight.”
Or: “Why do Americans like turkey so much?”
My mother’s been a U.S. citizen since 1996. And yet, she almost always uses the word “American” to refer to people who are native-born and fluent English speakers — without the flattened vowels or clipped syllables of a foreign accent like hers.
This was the first thing that sprung to my mind when, in September 2017, I watched President Donald Trump’s recorded welcome message to new citizens — the video that is now played at every naturalization ceremony across the country.
My dear fellow American. It is with great pride that I welcome you into the American family. No matter where you come from, or what faith you practice, this country is now your country. Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions.
“America is our home; we have no other,” he intones. And then, like something blared tinnily over a dystopian encampment: “You have pledged allegiance to America. And when you give your love and loyalty to America, she returns her love and loyalty to you.”
When it comes to presidential remarks, few are as politically charged as the humble naturalization speech. The citizen welcome message, along with the speeches that presidents deliver at naturalization ceremonies throughout their term, have to be both solemn and celebratory, both personal and philosophical. Their job is to lay out (sometimes in two minutes or less) what it means to be a citizen, to be an American, and to belong.
To nobody’s surprise, Presidents Trump and Barack Obama answered these questions with very different words.
Both speakers, however, teach us something important: In speechwriting, political meaning is often embedded in the language itself. It’s backlit by carefully chosen metaphors, and built into phrases and images. Words are freighted with meaning, and positioned to cast their own ideological shadows.
Take, for example, Obama’s version of the citizen welcome message:
Together, we are a nation united not by any one culture, or ethnicity, or ideology, but by the principles of opportunity, equality, and liberty that are enshrined in our founding documents.
The prevailing image is a culturally diverse nation, comprised of immigrants and bound by common principles.
Here, and in all of Obama’s other naturalization speeches, America is fundamentally a country of immigrants. “We say it so often, we sometimes forget what it means: we are a nation of immigrants,” he says at a naturalization ceremony in 2012. Then, in 2014: “Together, all of you remind us that America is and always has been a nation of immigrants.” And again, in 2015: “Immigration is our origin story…it’s our oldest tradition. It’s who we are.”
In Trump’s remarks, the immigrant vanishes. A “nation of immigrants” becomes an “American family.” This new image bookends both the president’s citizen welcome message — which starts and ends by receiving the audience into the national family — and his naturalization speeches, too.
At a ceremony in 2019, for example, Trump begins by welcoming the five new citizens into “our great American family.” He closes it in the same way: “Again, I want to congratulate you and welcome you to the family. It’s a family. It’s a beautiful family. It’s a family doing very well.” In over a thousand words, Trump never once utters the word “immigrant.”
Given Trump’s hardline stances on immigration — and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that defined his campaign — Trump’s fondness of the “American family” metaphor is unsurprising. Families symbolize love and loyalty and mutual affection. But they’re also communities that are bounded and exclusive, mostly homogeneous and united by bloodline. They represent, in other words, exactly the kind of America that Trump wants to build — one that’s enclosed, loyal, and uniform.
When American citizenship is so cloistered, gaining entry is more than a simple act of civic incorporation. It’s a triumph, a coveted invitation to join the hottest club in town. “You are now official United States citizens,” Trump says in the same 2019 naturalization speech. “You have just earned the most prized possession anywhere in the world.”
By contrast, Obama positions immigrants at the heart of the American story. “In the Mexican immigrant today, we see the Catholic immigrant of a century ago,” he says in 2015. “In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II. In these new Americans, we see our own American stories.”
In Obama’s telling, immigrants don’t exist at the margins of American society as lucky admits to the club: immigrants are American society. “After all, unless your family is Native American, one of the first Americans, our families — all of our families — come from someplace else,” Obama says in the same speech. He uses “families” here in the literal sense; not as metaphorical fodder. It’s an act of civic incorporation in the truest sense. In a nation of immigrants, no immigrant is an outsider.
We see this distinction most subtly in the way each president wields personal pronouns. “No matter where you come from, or what faith you practice,” Trump says in his citizen welcome, “this country is now your country. Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions.”
There’s a false sense of homogeneity lurking behind these sentences — a presumed “we” with a common American history and shared American traditions. “We” can all grasp at what “our” history and “our” traditions might look like: Pilgrims and Thanksgiving turkey, perhaps. Or baseball, Bruce Springsteen, and apple pie.
Funnily — or, perhaps, sadly — enough, this caricatured portrait of America is something my mother and Trump both relate to. They’ve internalized the same exaggerated version of an American inheritance, a cultural burlesque that fences him in while fencing her out.
Yet, Obama wields the same pronouns to collapse the very boundaries that Trump wants to draw. “The story of immigrants in America isn’t a story of ‘them,’ it’s a story of ‘us,’” Obama says in 2012.
In Obama’s speeches, there is no culturally uniform “we.” His gestures at a common American heritage refer to the country’s historical throughline as a nation of immigrants, all of whom, he acknowledges, have cultural heritages of their own.
Taken together, Trump and Obama’s naturalization speeches are near-perfect negatives of one another.
Trump’s America is an “American family,” enclosed and elite; Obama’s is a “nation of immigrants,” eclectic and diverse. Trump’s America is the freest and most prosperous country in the world; Obama’s is a work in progress. Trump’s America presumes a shared heritage that is now theirs “to protect, promote, and pass down to the next generation and to the next wave of newcomers to our shores”; Obama’s is a place where immigrants can “retain pride in [their] heritage.”
Line by line, metaphor by metaphor, Trump and Obama craft different versions of the same country — competing narratives with roots extending back in time, to contested moments of civic inclusion and exclusion, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the National Origins Formula to DACA.
At some point in that long history, my mother learned to write herself out of the American story. But, surely, the power and the purpose of words, especially in a president’s welcome message to new citizens, is to paint different portraits of this country, to speak a different America into existence, and to convince immigrants — my mother among them — to write themselves back in.
— Peggy Xu
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.