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Obama at Immigration Ceremony: 'We Used to Be Them'

President Obama took indirect shots at recent GOP candidates’ statements about immigration on the day of the presidential debate by speaking at a naturalization ceremony for immigrants from 25 countries.

After the 31 new citizens — including one from Iraq — pledged allegiance to the United States, Obama told them that “even as you’ve put in the work required to become a citizen, you still have a demanding and rewarding task ahead of you — and that is the hard work of active citizenship.”

“Just about every nation in the world, to some extent, admits immigrants. But there’s something unique about America,” the president said. “We don’t simply welcome new immigrants, we don’t simply welcome new arrivals — we are born of immigrants. That is who we are. Immigration is our origin story. And for more than two centuries, it’s remained at the core of our national character; it’s our oldest tradition. It’s who we are. It’s part of what makes us exceptional.”

“…Wave after wave of men, women, and children — from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, from Asia and Africa — poured into Ellis Island, or Angel Island, their trunks bursting with their most cherished possessions — maybe a photograph of the family they left behind, a family Bible, or a Torah, or a Koran.”

Obama said life for new immigrants to America hasn’t always been easy, and “certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves.”

He noted that the new Iraqi citizen, Muhanned Ibrahim Al Naib, “was the target of death threats for working with American forces.”

“He stood by his American comrades, and came to the U.S. as a refugee,” Obama said. “And today, we stand by him. And we are proud to welcome Muhanned as a citizen of the country that he already helped to defend.”

With the immigration and ill treatment of Africans, Irish-Catholics, Chinese and Japanese, “we succumbed to fear.”

“We betrayed not only our fellow Americans, but our deepest values. We betrayed these documents. It’s happened before,” Obama said. “And the biggest irony of course was — is that those who betrayed these values were themselves the children of immigrants. How quickly we forget. 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.’”

“…We must resolve to always speak out against hatred and bigotry in all of its forms — whether taunts against the child of an immigrant farmworker or threats against a Muslim shopkeeper.”

The president added that “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… 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. In these new Americans, we see our own American stories — our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, our uncles, our cousins who packed up what they could and scraped together what they had. And their paperwork wasn’t always in order.”