President Barack Obama sought to put a human face on the heated political debate over immigration on Friday when he oversaw a naturalization ceremony for members of the military.
In what’s become a White House tradition, Obama hosted immigrants who signed up to serve in the military, or whose spouses enlisted, and watched as they were sworn in as American citizens.
The roster included 15 active duty members, two veterans, one reservist and seven military spouses.
“You did something extraordinary: You signed up to serve in the United States military,” Obama told the new citizens on Friday. “You answered the call — to fight and potentially to give your life for a country that you didn’t fully belong to yet. You understood what makes us American is not just circumstances of birth, or the names in our family tree. It’s that timeless belief that from many we are one.”
Oscar Vanegas Gonzalez, a Marine private first class who was born in Guatemala and came to the United States when he was 19, became a citizen at the White House on Friday.
In Guatemala, “it was hard to have a good future,” Gonzalez said.
“This is a great nation. I want to be a part of this,” he said. “There are so many options and opportunities of just being someone here, in the United States of America.”
The President has hosted naturalization ceremonies for military families in four of his five years in the White House.
Friday’s event, however, comes amid a fiery debate among lawmakers over immigration reform and border security, spurred in part by an influx of immigrant children arriving in the United States without their parents.
Obama has vowed to follow the law in deporting the children, who officials say are fleeing violence in the Central American nations of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
The White House says the situation underscores the need to fix a broken immigration system, including calling for the passage of a comprehensive package of reforms approved by the Senate last year.
That measure has stalled in the Republican-controlled House, leading Obama this week to announce he was planning to take executive action to make some changes on his own.
Officials haven’t previewed what specific actions Obama may take, though the Department of Homeland Security is currently reviewing its deportation policy to locate ways to make it more “humane.”
That could include extending a deferred deportation rule Obama signed in 2012 for young immigrants brought here by their families.
“I’m going to keep doing everything I can do to keep making our immigration system smarter and more efficient so hardworking men and women like all of you have the opportunity to join the American family and to serve our great nation,” Obama said during the naturalization ceremony on Friday. “So we can be stronger and more prosperous and more whole — together.”
Former President George W. Bush signed an executive order in 2002 allowing for expedited naturalization for immigrant servicemen and women who enlisted after September 11, 2001.
Since then, more than 90,000 military members have become citizens, along with some of their children and spouses.
Obama’s Independence Day continues later in the evening with a party on the South Lawn for military families that features a performance by Pitbull and a prime viewing spot for fireworks on the National Mall.