In a ceremony in the East Room, Obama hailed the new Americans, including 13 who serve in the U.S. military, as examples of the nation’s strong immigrant history and argued that lawmakers must no longer avoid tackling immigration reform.
“Immigration makes us stronger; it keeps us vibrant, it keeps us hungry, it makes us prosperous. It’s part of what makes this a dynamic country,” Obama said. But, he added: “We need to do a better job welcoming them. We’ve known for years that our immigration system is broken. . . . After avoiding the problem for years, the time has come to fix it once and for all.”
The president has participated in a naturalization ceremony at the White House for the past four years, but this year’s event took on heightened symbolism. Obama read a list of countries that the immigrants hailed from — including Afghanistan, Germany, Mexico, Nigeria and Peru — and some of the new citizens wore their U.S. military uniforms. They raised their right hand while reciting an oath of citizenship at the direction of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Obama praised bipartisan efforts in the Senate and House to develop reform legislation, and he said he expects a bill to be introduced next month. A bipartisan group of eight senators has said it hopes to unveil its bill after the Senate returns from a two-week Easter break April 8.
The Senate effort, widely expected to serve as a template for a potential deal between Congress and the White House, will include a 13-year path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants, a large increase in visas for high-tech workers, a new guest-worker program for low-wage foreigners, and the elimination of some categories of visas for extended family members, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
The legislation will also call for increased border control and work-place security measures.
“We’ve got to finish the job. This issue is not new,” Obama said. “Everyone pretty much knows what’s broken; everyone knows how to fix it. . . . We’ve just got, at this point, to work up the political courage to do what’s required to be done.”
Senate aides have said they expect the bipartisan bill to be written during the Easter break, despite a dispute from labor and business leaders over terms of a guest-worker program for foreigners. Under the proposal, up to 200,000 immigrants a year would be granted visas for low-skilled jobs for which not enough American workers are available.\
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have disagreed over how much those immigrants should be paid, with labor leaders saying they are concerned that the program could drag down wages for all workers.
The Senate aides said they do not think the dispute will stop the bill from remaining on schedule. In the House, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has said a bipartisan group has wrapped up its work on a bill that could be introduced in the next few weeks.
Immigration advocates hailed the White House ceremony Monday as an example of why the promise of becoming a citizen is so important to those who leave home countries for the United States.
“Citizenship is more than a process,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that backs a citizenship path. “It speaks to who we are as a nation. It ensures that the energy and aspirations that drove these new citizens to our country in the first place keep our nation vital and moving forward.”
In his remarks, Obama shared some of the personal stories of the new citizens, noting that one man from Ukraine had come to the United States when he was 11 and joined the Air Force “to give back to the country.” Another man from Nigeria, who is pursuing a doctorate in information technology, wants to be a professor, the president said.
“As we look out across this room, we are reminded what makes somebody American is not just their blood lines, not just an accident of birth — it’s a fidelity to our founding principles,” Obama said, “a faith in an idea that anyone, anywhere, can write the next great chapter in this American story.”