At the end of the naturalization process, all immigrants are required to take a public oath of allegiance—not to the president, or even to the United States per se, but to the Constitution. It’s an act few native-born Americans ever consciously perform: publicly and patriotically affirming the nation’s founding charter.
This act represents a kind of “constitutional patriotism.” In the absence of any shared ethnic, religious, or cultural heritage, newly minted citizens pledge fealty to the abstract concepts of liberty, equality, and justice for all. They are, in theory, forced to confront and internalize these fundamental values. In the process, they sometimes come to know the country better than those who wave the flag the hardest.
There are many immigrants willing to take that pledge. The last three months of 2016 saw a 28 percent increase in the number of naturalization applicants compared with the last three months of 2015. As some news reports suggested, one reason for the uptick may have been fear of Donald Trump’s stricter tact on immigration. There are deeper cultural dynamics at play, too. The country is riding a new wave of the nativism that has intermittently characterized much of American history, from the anti-Catholic Know Nothings to the Chinese Exclusion Act, to anti-Irish, -Italian, -Jewish, -Catholic, and -Japanese animus, to the two chief targets du jour: Muslims and Latinos. Although green-card holders have greater due-process protections than other non-citizens, the only true shield from deportation is a naturalization certificate.