President Barack Obama speaks during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives Tuesday in Washington.

President Barack Obama speaks during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives Tuesday in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP

Why Obama’s Tuesday Defense of Immigrants Matters

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

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.

“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 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 says, 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 stressed the im­port­ance of passing “com­mon­sense” 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.”