You need immigration vocabulary to study American history. As President Obama points out in the speech below, all Americans (at least after native Americans) were originally immigrants from someplace else. The growth of the U.S. and of the development of a distinctly ‘American’ culture is a direct result of immigration.
I taught Citizenship as a part of adult ESL classes in southern California for years. I think this twenty minute speech by President Obama is a good short summary of American history and the part immigrants have played in it—and an eloquent plea for tolerance and active participation in democracy.
It’s well worth reading or listening to for that reason alone (as well as to understand one still-powerful man’s perspective on some questions being debated again in the U.S. right now.)
In addition, it provides valuable practice with some academic vocabulary.
President Obama gave this speech at a naturalization ceremony in which immigrants o the U.S. became citizens. It was held at the National Archives-- a museum for our most important founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, as well as many other records and displays.
After the immigrants there took the oath of allegiance and became citizens, he spoke to them about how their experiences fit into the story of American history. You may not know some of the words he used, because he used many specific examples and even named some of the new citizens and told their stories.
He talked about Ellis Island (in New York Harbor), and Angel Island (in San Francisco Bay)—the main places where the U.S. government processed new immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
His message is important because, as he said “It’s about the meaning of America and what kind of country do we want to be.”
He said, “Being a citizen is hard.” and added “There’s no respite (relief) from our ideals. All of us are called to live up to our expectations for ourselves -- not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient. When it’s tough. When we’re afraid...”*
He quoted former President Kennedy on how much democracy requires of its citizens. Then President Obama added “Our system of self-government depends on ordinary citizens doing the hard, frustrating but always essential work of citizenship -- of being informed... Of speaking out when something is not right. Of helping fellow citizens when they need a hand...
And that work gives purpose to every generation. It belongs to me. It belongs to the judge. It belongs to you. It belongs to you, all of us, as citizens. To follow our laws, yes, but also to engage with your communities and to speak up for what you believe in. And to vote -- to not only exercise the rights that are now yours, but to stand up for the rights of others...
You will not and should not forget your history and your past. That adds to the richness of American life. But you are now American. You’ve got obligations as citizens. And I’m absolutely confident you will meet them. You’ll set a good example for all of us, because you know how precious this thing is...”
* Three dots like this: ... inside a quote mean a part of the quote has been omitted (left out)—often to save space. Please do listen to the whole speech to get all the ideas the president shared—as well as more practice with the citizenship and immigration vocabulary.
A few explanations of words before you watch the video:
Betrayal means being disloyal to your friends or your country. (Often it means putting them in danger by giving secrets to an enemy. In this case Obama means violating basic American values.)
A generation is a group of people living at about the same time. We talk about our grandparents’ generation, or our parents’, or our children’s. A generation covers a period of about 20 years.
Refugees are people who have had to leave their own country because of violence or threats of violence against them, often because of their religion or ethnic group (especially if they are a minority group.)
After watching Obama’s speech, match some of the important citizenship and immigration vocabulary he used to the words’ meanings. (If you would rather read his speech, the written transcript is here.)
Match the words on the right with the definitions on the left. The first has been done as an example.
For more about immigration in American history, see this interactive chart (with links at the bottom to several maps on immigration) or read this story about it and also practice irregular past tense verbs.
If you are studying for the U.S. Citizenship test, see American Citizenship Test Questions.