White House

Obama looks to counter anti-Muslim sentiment by welcoming new citizens

President Barack Obama extolled the virtues of immigration and urged Americans not to give into fear of “the stranger” as he presided over a naturalization service for new American citizens from 25 countries.

Obama’s remarks at the National Archives came amid a bitter political debate sparked by Donald Trump’s bid to bar Muslims from entry into the U.S., and Obama said calls to close U.S. borders are un-American.

“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 we want to be,” Obama said as the crowd of new citizens waved American flags. “It’s about the capacity of each generation to honor the creed as old as our founding: ‘E Pluribus Unum’ -- that out of many, we are one.”

He noted that the newest citizens came from countries including Brazil, Uganda, Iraq and the Philippines and said that unless one’s family is Native American, “all of our families come from someplace else.”

He said the U.S. was built on welcoming refugees and listed “waves and waves” of arrivals, including Irish Catholics fleeing hunger, Italians fleeing poverty, along with Holocaust survivors, Soviet Refuseniks and refugees from warring countries. Mexicans, Cubans and Iranians left deadly revolutions and Central American teenagers ran from gang violence, he said.

Among the newest Americans, he singled out Fulbert Florent Akoula from the Republic of Congo, who was granted asylum when his family was threatened by political violence. And he said that Muhanned Ibrahim Al Naib was the target of death threats for working with American forces and came to the U.S. as a refugee.

“We can never say it often or loudly enough: Immigrants and refugees revitalize and renew America,” he said., noting that many Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.

But he said the U.S. has not “always lived up to our own ideals,” citing slavery and signs that once read “No Irish Need Apply.” And he called the World War II detention of Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens “one of the darkest chapters of our history.”

“Those who betrayed these values were themselves the children of immigrants. How quickly we forget,” he said. “One generation passes, two generation passes, and suddenly we don’t remember where we came from. And we suggest that somehow there is ‘us’ and there is ‘them,’ not remembering we used to be ‘them.’ “

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