Amid a heated national debate on immigration, President Obama on Tuesday made an impassioned defense of migrants and refugees at a naturalization ceremony in Washington, D.C. — telling some of the country's newest citizens they were emblematic of America's longstanding cultural diversity.
Speaking before the original copies of the founding documents at the National Archives, the president told the 31 new Americans, "as of today your story is forever woven into the larger story of this nation."
Turning to history to defend immigrants, the president noted that eight of the people who signed the U.S. constitution that lay in bullet-proof glass behind him were immigrants themselves.
"We are born of immigrants. That is who we are," he said. "Immigration is our origin story. For more than two centuries, it's remained at the core of our national character. It's our oldest tradition. It makes us who we are."
With Republican contenders for the presidency calling for walls to be constructed along the U.S. border with Mexico and a total ban on Muslims entering the country, and as dozens of governors across the country demand an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees, Obama instead in his speech harked back to some of the most shameful moments in history to make his defense of immigration.
He referenced Africans brought over on slave ships; Irish people once barred from New York City employment; Catholics coming under suspicion for having a possible foreign allegiance to the pope; Chinese people being banned from entering the country; and German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants and dual citizens being detained and interned in camps during World War Two. "We succumbed to fear," he said of these episodes. "We betrayed not only our fellow Americans but our deepest values. We betrayed these documents. It's happened before."
"Those who betrayed these values were themselves the children of immigrants. How quickly we forget," he said. "We suggest that somehow there is us and there is them, not remembering that we used to be them."
To applause that echoed throughout the rotunda, Obama said Americans must resolve never to repeat such mistakes.
At times, the president fell silent for long stretches, his eyes becoming glassy, as he exulted the contributions of American immigrants to business, culture, and society.
"The tension throughout our history between welcoming or rejecting the stranger, it's about more than just immigration. It's about the meaning of America. What kind of country do want to be?"
"In the Mexican immigrant today," he said, "we see the Catholic immigrant of a century ago. In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War Two."
Speaking to those present, who hailed from 25 different countries, Obama said he hoped they would participate in all elements of American life.
"You will not and should not forget your history and your past. That adds to the richness of American life," he said, "but you are now American. You've got obligations as citizens — and I'm absolutely confident you will meet them. You'll set a good example for all of us because you know how precious this thing is."