WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called the internment of Japanese Americans an injustice in a Dec. 15 speech at the National Archives during a naturalization ceremony for immigrants from more than 25 countries.
The National Archives houses original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, among other documents. Dec. 15 marked the 224th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights.
Apparently in response to recent calls to block all Syrian refugees or all Muslims from entering the U.S. due to concerns over terrorism, and renewed debate over whether the wartime internment was justified, Obama talked about America’s tradition of accepting immigrants from around the world as well as mistakes of the past:
“Immigrants are the teachers who inspire our children, and they’re the doctors who keep us healthy. They’re the engineers who design our skylines, and the artists and the entertainers who touch our hearts. Immigrants are soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen who protect us, often risking their lives for an America that isn’t even their own yet.
“As an Iraqi, 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. 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.
“We celebrate this history, this heritage, as an immigrant nation. And we are strong enough to acknowledge, as painful as it may be, that we haven’t always lived up to our own ideals. We haven’t always lived up to these documents.
“From the start, Africans were brought here in chains against their will, and then toiled under the whip. They also built America. A century ago, New York City shops displayed those signs, ‘No Irish Need Apply.’ Catholics were targeted, their loyalty questioned — so much so that as recently as the 1950s and ’60s, when JFK had to run, he had to convince people that his allegiance wasn’t primarily to the Pope.
“Chinese immigrants faced persecution and vicious stereotypes, and were, for a time, even banned from entering America. During World War II, German and Italian residents were detained, and in one of the darkest chapters in our history, Japanese immigrants and even Japanese American citizens were forced from their homes and imprisoned in camps. We succumbed to fear. We betrayed not only our fellow Americans, but our deepest values. We betrayed these documents. It’s happened before.
“And the biggest irony, of course … is that those who betrayed these values were themselves the children of immigrants. How quickly we forget. One generation passes, two generations pass, 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.’
“On days like today, we need to resolve never to repeat mistakes like that again. 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.
“We are Americans. Standing up for each other is what the values enshrined in the documents in this room compels us to do — especially when it’s hard. Especially when it’s not convenient. That’s when it counts. That’s when it matters — not when things are easy, but when things are hard.”
To see a copy of the entire speech, click here.