WASHINGTON (AP) – Celebrating the ethnic diversity of America, President Barack Obama said more than two dozen foreign-born service members who became U.S. citizens at a White House ceremony on the Fourth of July are vivid reminders that the country is, and always has been, a nation of immigrants.
He said the vast range of backgrounds and experiences that made America a melting pot for more than 200 years also makes it stronger, but that the immigration system has to be retooled for the U.S. to keep its place as the greatest nation on earth.
"If we want to keep attracting the best and the brightest from beyond our shores, we're going to have to fix our immigration system, which is broken," Obama said after 25 service members from 15 countries raised their right hands and pledged allegiance to the United States. "Pass common-sense immigration reform. We shouldn't be making it harder for the best and the brightest to come here, and create jobs here, and grow our economy here. We should be making it easier."
The hot-button issue of immigration is earning renewed attention after the influx to the U.S. of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America. Under U.S. law, they must be sent back across the border with Mexico to their home countries, which has upset immigration advocates who already take issue with Obama's strict enforcement of deportation policy. They want Obama to allow the children to stay; he says he must follow the law.
At the same time, Obama blames House Republicans for delaying action on immigration legislation. A comprehensive measure the Senate passed last summer has been blocked by House leaders who also have done little to advance their own immigration proposals.
Obama announced earlier this week that, as a result of inaction on Capitol Hill, he will pursue non-legislative ways that he can adjust U.S. immigration policy without waiting for Congress to send him a bill.
"I'm going to keep doing everything I can to keep making our immigration system smarter and more efficient so hard-working men and women like all of you have the opportunity to join the American family and to serve our great nation," he said at Friday's ceremony. "So we can be stronger and more prosperous and more whole — together."
In the evening, Obama and his wife, Michelle, were welcoming a larger group of service members, including the new citizens, to an all-American barbecue on the South Lawn, along with prime seating for the fireworks on the National Mall.
"Together, all of you remind us that America is and always has been a nation of immigrants," he told those at the naturalization ceremony. He noted that they had signed up "to fight and potentially to give your life for a country that you didn't fully belong to yet."
Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban who became a naturalized citizen in 1973, administered the oath of allegiance.
Mayorkas also used the ceremony to recognize internationally known celebrity chef Jose Andres for outstanding achievements by a naturalized U.S. citizen. Born in Spain, the 44-year-old Andres became a citizen last November and is spending his first July Fourth as an American citizen.
Andres serves on the boards of the DC Central Kitchen and the L.A. Kitchen, and does philanthropic work through his World Central Kitchen. He runs restaurants in California, Nevada, Florida, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Andres, an active immigration advocate, has prepared meals for White House and other Obama administration events, while Obama and the first lady have dined at some of Andres' restaurants in Washington.
Andres also contributed financially to both of Obama's presidential campaigns.
Obama presented Andres with a certificate and invited him to the microphone, but the chef politely declined. Later on Twitter, Andres said: "Humbled to receive Outstanding American by Choice Award. Happy to be part of this great nation!"
Obama had another reason to celebrate on Friday. His oldest daughter, Malia, turned 16.