Through her analysis based on interviews with each of the three subjects over the course of seven years, Dragomir, an immigrant from Romania, illuminates how military service, combined with other factors, such as race, gender, and social class, presented both obstacles and opportunities for a better life in America.
NYU News spoke with Dragomir in mid-December, as Congress was debating border-security measures and an overhaul to immigration laws, holding up aid to both Ukraine and Israel in the process. Shortly after this conversation, the state of Texas passed a law allowing state and local law enforcement to arrest and deport those suspected of being in the country illegally—an attempt to claim a power that has historically rested solely with the federal government.
Immigration is a divisive issue, but the immigrants you interviewed are sworn into an institution, you write, that “emphasizes its commitment to the unity of the nation.” Can we draw from the military in seeking ways to find some common ground?
Naturalization via military service presents an intriguing paradox in the context of immigration. While the U.S. military’s vision prioritizes the unity of the nation, it also highlights the contributions of immigrants who serve and swear allegiance to this unified goal. The military exemplifies how individuals from diverse backgrounds, including immigrants, can come together under a shared purpose for a greater good of a community or a nation.
However, mirroring the military’s approach to immigration at the national level is a more complex endeavor. While the military emphasizes unity, public sentiments reflect diverse opinions and divergent political stances when it comes to immigration. So finding a common ground on immigration involves navigating a complex web of cultural, economic, and political factors—and these might not align with a military's model of unity.
But there are nevertheless valuable lessons that we can draw from the military’s vision. The military underscores the importance of acknowledging and leveraging the strengths of diversity, while fostering a sense of shared purpose and belonging to a larger community. So by adopting principles of inclusivity, respect for differences, and a focus on common goals, there is a potential.
Yet, I would like to add, the military’s own vision is not always fully accomplished. The three participants that are the focus of my research showcase how, in spite of this vision, cleavages that we see in the civilian life—along the lines of race, class, gender, and ethnicity—persist within the military experience and furthermore can really put the idea of the unity of the nation and the unity of the military under scrutiny.
As you just alluded to, you found that the trio’s service experiences varied in ways that were linked to gender, race, and country of origin. But were there ways that what you call the “superimposed military identity” that they had in common served as a counterweight to these differences in treatment?
One thing all three participants in this research had in common was how proud they were to serve in the American armed forces, despite encountering numerous obstacles. They were excited to enlist, and they were really glad to wear the American military uniform. They were happy to join and to be recognized as members of the nation and of its military. In other words, all three of them, to varying degrees, embraced the superimposed military identity. All three shared with me that they mostly appreciated how others perceived them as the result of their enlistment. So it is important to mention that this superimposed military identity acts not only on the immigrant soldiers, but also on all the enlistees—both native-born and foreign-born.
At the same time, the superimposed military identity acts in the civilian realm as well. So what it means is that a lot of people recognize you not as an individual and not as a migrant anymore, but as a member of a well-known institution of the state and mostly a highly respected one as well. The three participants shared with me that they felt more recognized when their military identity prevailed—when they were uniform, for instance. As I argue in the book, integration and becoming a citizen is a long, laborious, and uneven process. But overall, those I interviewed transformed greatly through this experience, and the military gave them the means and the tools to operate both within the military and the civilian realm.
You refer to the concept of patriotism throughout the book. In speaking with Lily, Alexa, and Vikrant, did their use of the term vary from how you think native-born Americans understand it?
For many migrants, patriotism towards the United States isn’t something that is simply assumed by others—patriotism is a standard by which they are constantly evaluated. And therefore, in order to secure their place in the military and in the host country, they have to perform it. Their citizen counterparts, especially soldiers, do not face this standard from the get-go. They do not have to argue for their love of America.