People celebrate as they become U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives Museum in Washington, Dec. 15, 2015.
Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Obama warns we’ve seen anti-immigrant attacks before

President Obama gave an impassioned reminder on Tuesday that the U.S. was not only founded by immigrants, but that the range of races, ethnicity and religions that have faced discrimination throughout our nation’s history has run the gamut. 

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

Surrounded by the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution and 31 newly naturalized citizens, Obama carefully outlined the generations of immigrants that faced bigotry and even violence. There were Africans who were brought to the U.S. against their will and enslaved. Chinese immigrants encountered vicious stereotypes and were even banned from entering the U.S. Germans and Italians were rounded up in droves during wartime, while Irish immigrants were denied jobs. Anti-Catholic frenzy escalated into violence. Japanese Americans – many of whom had never set foot in their native land – were interned for years. 

Despite a significant amount of progress, similar sparks of nativism and fear continue to take hold.

“How quickly we forget. How quickly we forget,” Obama said. “One generation passes, two generations pass and we don’t remember where we came from and suggest that there is ‘us’ and there is ‘them’ — not remembering that we used to be ‘them.’”

It says something when the nation’s first black president must remind the public of the dark moments in the nation’s past, and warn that the cycles of discrimination tend to repeat themselves. But Obama was speaking, of course, at a time when the recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. have left some Americans on edge and susceptible to political rhetoric that blames outsiders. Donald Trump has proposed banning Muslims from the U.S., and earlier this year called some Mexican immigrants “rapists,” while other Republican presidential candidates have often seemed to echo or indulge Trump’s xenophobia.  

It’s a dynamic that Obama says the U.S. is all-too familiar with. “We succumbed to fear. We betrayed not only our fellow Americans but our deepest values,” he said.

The event, held at the National Archives, marked the 224th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Thirty-one people hailing from 25 nations were naturalized in the ceremony – they represent a tiny pocket of the nearly 9 million permanent legal residents in the U.S. that qualify to become citizens, a group the president says should be welcomed with open arms. 

“We can never say it often or loudly enough: Immigrants and refugees revitalize and renew America,” Obama said. 

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Obama warns we've seen anti-immigrant attacks before