By Sarah Wheaton and Nolan McCaskill
December 15, 2015
President Barack Obama welcomed more than 30 new U.S. citizens at a naturalization ceremony on Tuesday, using the event to counter recent anti-Muslim and anti-refugee comments from Republican presidential candidates including Donald Trump.
“Scripture tells us, 'For we are strangers before you, and sojourners, as were all our fathers,'” Obama said in his address to the 31 immigrants representing 25 different countries who were granted citizenship in a ceremony at the National Archives. “In the Mexican immigrant today, we see the Catholic immigrant of a century ago; in the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II.”
It was the second time in a week that Obama shot back at the GOP field — particularly Trump — without naming names or directly referencing contemporary politics. Like his speech last week marking the 150th anniversary of the amendment abolishing slavery, Obama offered a soaring tribute to American history and values. In both instances, he acknowledged areas where the U.S. has failed to live up to those values, like the bondage of blacks, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Obama's remarks also come amid a broader effort by his administration to leave a mark on elections over the long term. The White House launched an initiative earlier this year to encourage eligible immigrants to get naturalized and vote, which could provide a boost to Democrats' chances to not only hold on to the White House but to reclaim control of Congress. And in Tuesday's speech, Obama stressed the responsibilities of American citizenship: “To follow our laws, yes, but also to engage with your communities, to speak up for what you believe in, and to vote.”
There are signs Republicans are concerned at just how far their commitment to be more inclusive of Hispanic voters after the bruising 2012 loss has unraveled. Last week, a memo from Senate Republicans' campaign arm aired concerns that a Trump candidacy could harm the party down the ballot in 2016, and other Republicans have increasingly sounded the alarm about the push for legal immigration in recent months, noting that newer Americans are more likely to vote for Democrats.
At the same time, polls show GOP support growing for Trump in the wake of his call to ban Muslims from entering the country, and a survey of Republican voters showed six in 10 back his plan.
Obama's remarks "do stand in stark contrast to the rhetoric and divisiveness that will most surely be on display on the debate stage tonight in Las Vegas," said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, referring to Tuesday night's scheduled Republican debate on CNN, "but the things that the president talked about today are also firmly in line with the vision for the country that the president has long given voice to.”
Earnest made it clear that the White House is confident not only of the righteousness of Obama's vision, but also of its political popularity.
That message "has attracted the strong support of Democrats and Republicans in the context of an election in 2008 and an election in 2012," Earnest continued. "The president's ability to advocate for those basic values are the reason that he’s sitting in the office that he’s sitting in today and the reason that I’m standing at the podium that I’m standing at right now.”
Amid the larger debate about vetting immigrants for terrorism concerns after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, Obama said Americans have betrayed one another and the very values that documents housed in the Archives such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution embody. “The biggest irony, of course, was that those who’ve betrayed these values were themselves the children of immigrants,” he said. “How quickly we forget. One generation passes, two generation passes and suddenly we don’t remember where we came from.”
Obama condemned the us-versus-them mentality some Americans have toward immigrants — “not remembering we used to be them,” he said. “On days like today, we need to resolve never to repeat mistakes like that again. We must resolve to always speak out against hatred and bigotry, in all of its forms."
Being an American is tough, the president said, but standing up for one another is what the values enshrined in the documents inside the rotunda of the National Archives compels Americans to do — especially when it’s hard and inconvenient.
Obama told the batch of new citizens they have obligations. “But I’m absolutely confident you will meet them,” he said. “You’ll set a good example for all of us because you know how precious this thing is. It’s not something to take for granted. It’s something to cherish and to fight for.”
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