President Obama offered a sweeping defense of immigrants and refugees on Tuesday, battling combative rhetoric toward Muslims from Republican presidential contenders.
Speaking at a naturalization ceremony for 31 new U.S. citizens at the National Archives in Washington, Obama called immigration “our oldest tradition” and “part of what makes us exceptional.”
Obama said that new Americans “revitalize and renew America” by starting new businesses and adding to the nation’s cultural fabric.
But he added that the nation has too often betrayed its values by discriminating against ethnic and religious groups, citing the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“We succumbed to fear,” said Obama, standing in front of a copy of the U.S. Constitution. “We betrayed not only our fellow Americans but our deepest values. We betrayed these documents. It’s happened before.”
He decried the anti-refugee rhetoric that has dominated phases of the 2016 presidential debate, saying, "On days like today, we need to resolve never to repeat mistakes like that. ” He added that “in the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II.”
Obama is in the midst of a weeklong messaging effort meant to reassure the public about his strategy to combat terrorism.
The president is making the case that the country can confront the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) without demonizing the Muslim community.
Obama’s speech marked the second time in a week he has taken aim at the GOP presidential front-runner, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump stands to win big on tax reform, but a trade war with Canada could change everything Tillerson on North Korea: 'Our goal is not regime change' WATCH LIVE: Trump speaks at NRA forum MORE, who has called for a halt to all Muslim immigration to the U.S.
The president had jabbed at Trump last Wednesday during a speech marking the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery.
He made Tuesday's remarks a few hours before the Republican field was set to debate in Las Vegas, where national security — including topics related to refugees and the immigration system — is expected to be a major focus. It’s the first debate since terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., which heightened fears about the threat posed by Islamic terrorists and "lone wolf" sympathizers.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest didn’t deny that Trump has been on Obama’s mind, saying that the president’s comments “stand in stark contrast to the rhetoric and divisiveness that will most surely be on display on the debate stage in Las Vegas.”
Republicans are concerned that groups such as ISIS could sneak operatives into the U.S. through the refugee resettlement process and vehemently oppose Obama's effort to bring in 10,000 refugees from Syria in the next year.
Dozens of states, including 25 governed by Republicans, have said they do not want to resettle refugees from Syria within their borders.
The administration has said the refugees undergo the most stringent security screening process of anyone seeking to enter the U.S., a process that takes up to two years.
Obama spoke at a ceremony that included a new immigrant from Iraq and a person from the Congo who sought asylum.
He accused those who want to close the country to refugees of hypocrisy.
“The first refugees were the Pilgrims themselves, fleeing religious persecution,” he said, referring to the English settlers of Plymouth, Mass.
Obama added that people who "betrayed" America's immigrant tradition are almost always the descendants of immigrants themselves.
"How quickly we forget," he said. "Suddenly we don’t remember where we came from.”
The White House is also working behind the scenes to assuage the concerns of religious groups who feel alienated by the tenor of the campaign debate.
Top Obama aides, including senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, on Monday met with Muslim-American community leaders to discuss what they say is a rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment around the country.
Current and former administration officials “have observed that the kind of offensive, hateful, divisive rhetoric that we’ve seen from a handful of Republican candidates for president is damaging and dangerous,” Earnest said Monday.
--This report was updated at 1:51 p.m.