The ceremony in which Marta Quintanilla Call became a U.S. citizen was held in a cavernous high-school auditorium in Oakton, Virginia. She and 499 other immigrants stood, put their hands on their hearts, and repeated the oath of allegiance, prompted by a woman on the stage. Next came a videotaped congratulatory message from President Obama and a slideshow of American scenery accompanied by a recording of Lee Greenwood singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” The country hit, played incessantly on radio stations after the 9/11 attacks and again after Osama bin Laden was killed, would have struck some of the immigrant Americans as inappropriate if they knew what the songwriter actually thought about foreigners. “If America changes to the point that it is no longer a Christian nation and no longer protects itself from aliens who come and go,” Greenwood said in 2010, “then it won’t be America anymore.” The new citizens nevertheless seemed to feel welcomed. At the end of the ceremony, they cheered and waved the little American flags they received with their naturalization certificate.
Though the ceremony was not personal or intimate (or culturally sensitive), its very size made it impressive, because of the diversity on display. The people who filled the auditorium that morning in August 2014 came from 82 countries (about half with a non-Christian heritage) and represented nearly all the nationalities on the planet. Many of the women wore headscarves, and some of the men wore skullcaps. Three of the top four countries represented—India, Pakistan, and Ethiopia—had prior to 1965 been allocated only a few U.S. visa slots per year.