Why Obama's Defense of Immigrants Matters

“In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II,” the president said Tuesday at a naturalization ceremony.

Participants in a naturalization ceremony raise their hands to take the "Oath of Allegiance" at an event attended by President Obama at the National Archives in Washington on Tuesday.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Obama speaks at a ceremony granting immigrants American citizenship every year. But in the shadow of heightened Islamophobia across the country, he took the opportunity Tuesday to make an appeal to Americans: Don’t repeat the country’s history of prejudice.

From forcing Africans into slavery to displaying signs in New York City shops proclaiming “No Irish Need Apply” to interning Japanese-Americans and immigrants during World War II, “we haven’t always lived up to” American ideals, he said.

“We succumbed to fear,” Obama said of those dark moments in American history. “We betrayed not only our fellow Americans but our deepest values.”

But the “biggest irony,” he said, was that “those who betrayed these values were themselves the children of immigrants.

“How quickly we forget. One generation passes, two generations pass, and suddenly we don't remember where we came from. We suggest that somehow there is ‘us’ and there is ‘them,’ not remembering we used to be them,” he said. “On days like today, we need to resolve never to repeat mistakes like that again.”

Standing in front of the Constitution at the National Archives, Obama took aim at the rising tide of intolerance and anti-immigrant fear. Though the ceremony, which officially granted 31 candidates U.S. citizenship, is an annual ritual that had been scheduled for weeks, the political climate around immigrants, and Muslims in particular, imbued the event with renewed significance. For Obama, it was an opportunity to counter Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric—and show the country his commitment to keeping immigration “at the core of our national character.”

“The tension throughout our history between welcoming or rejecting the stranger, it's about more than immigration,” he said. “It's about the meaning of America. What kind of country do we want to be?”

And he drew an explicit analogy between discrimination of yore and today’s intolerance.

“In the Mexican immigrant today, we see the Catholic immigrant of a century ago,” he cautioned. “In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II.”

After Donald Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslim immigration last week, he was roundly lambasted. But nearly six in 10 Republican voters said they supported the ban, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll. At the same time, Islamophobia is on the rise: Among stacks of hate mail and countless threats in the weeks since the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, mosques have been the target of hate crimes from Philadelphia to Southern California.

So it was crucial Tuesday for Obama to “help to advance what we have known to be truly American ideals” through both his words and the symbolism of simply being there, said Bill Burton, the president’s former deputy press secretary.

“This president, just like all presidents, has a special role to play in national conversations,” Burton said. “And I think underscoring what American values are in the face of the intolerance that’s being projected by Donald Trump is important.”

Americans, he said, are “looking for the adult in the conversation to step up” to bat against Trump’s trenchant brand of nativism.

Obama hasn’t shied away from that duty. Last week, at a Capitol Hill ceremony to commemorate the 13th Amendment—which abolished slavery—he vigorously condemned bigotry. Though he didn’t mention Trump by name, his target was apparent when he urged Americans “to re­mem­ber that our free­dom is bound up with the free­dom of oth­ers. Re­gard­less of what they looked like or where they come from or what their last name is, or what faith they prac­tice.”

The last three naturalization ceremonies that Obama has attended were also marked by explicitly political calls for action. Rather than appeals to tolerance, though, the president pushed for immigration reform, reminding the new citizens in 2014 that the immigration system was “broken” and stressing the importance of passing “common-sense” reform.

On Tuesday, the 224th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, he urged the 31 new citizens to look out for their fellow Americans.

“We must resolve to always speak out against hatred and bigotry in all of its forms, whether taunts against the child of an immigrant farm worker, or threats against a Muslim shopkeeper,” he said. “We are Americans. Standing up for each other is what the values enshrined in the documents in this room compels us to do, especially when it's harder. Especially when it's not convenient. That's when it counts.”