Obama Salutes 25 Soldiers as Newest U.S. Citizens

Image credit: Evan Vucci/AP

Twenty-five members of the U.S. military became American citizens in the presence of their commander in chief today, in a rare Independence Day ceremony at the White House. "What a perfect way to celebrate America's birthday, the world's oldest democracy, with some of our newest citizens," President Obama said at the East Room event. "This is one of my favorite things to do. It brings me great joy and inspiration because it reminds us that we are a country that is bound together, not simply by ethnicity or bloodlines, but by fidelity to a set of ideas." The new citizens are all active duty service members living in the U.S. legally, just a handful of the estimated 29,000 foreigners now wearing a U.S. military uniform. "All of you did something profound. You chose to serve. You put on the uniform of country that was not yet fully your own," the president said. "You displayed the values that we celebrate every Fourth of July: duty, responsibility and patriotism." Today's ceremony comes just weeks after the president announced his administration would stop deporting and begin granting work permits to hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. The election-year move was hailed by the Hispanic community, a key demographic in the upcoming election. "Even now, we're still perfecting our union, still extending the promise of America," Obama said. "That includes making sure the American Dream endures for all those, like these men and women, who are willing to work hard, play by the rules and meet their responsibilities." "Immigration makes America stronger. Immigration makes us more prosperous and immigration positions America to lead in the 21st century. These young men and women are testaments to that," he continued. "You are all one of the reasons that America is exceptional. You are one of the reasons why, even after two centuries, America is always young, always looking to the future, always confident our greatest days are still to come." The new citizens who took the oath today come from 17 different countries. Hans Lemuel Pang Sy, who joined the Army after 9/11, six years after his family had emigrated from the Philippines. Cristian Felipe Zapata Gil came from Colombia as a teenager but was motivated to become an Army engineer after the catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti. Since shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the U.S. government has put foreign military service personnel on a fast track to citizenship "to recognize their contribution and sacrifice," according to a Pentagon spokeswoman. About 8,000 immigrants enlist each year in the U.S. armed forces. Foreigners must be in the U.S. legally and must have an established home, and they can serve as enlisted personnel but as non-citizens are not eligible to become military officers. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs John Shalikashvili was born in Poland and as a naturalized citizen he rose through Army ranks to the highest job in the military. This is the third naturalization ceremony President Obama has hosted for active-duty service members. The Pentagon says that since September 11, 2001, more than 75,000 foreigners in American uniform have become U.S. citizens.