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Obama Compares Syrian Refugees to America’s Pilgrims in Thanksgiving Speech

"Nearly four centuries after the Mayflower set sail, the world is still full of pilgrims," Obama said, urging compassion toward Syrian refugees amid backlash after the Paris attacks.

by VICE News
Nov 26 2015, 6:10pm

Photo via Michael Reynolds/EPA

Addressing the nation in his annual Thanksgiving Day speech, US President Barack Obama invoked the plight of the Pilgrims when urging Americans to be compassionate toward Syrian refugees.

"Nearly four centuries after the Mayflower set sail, the world is still full of pilgrims," Obama said. "Men and women who want nothing but a safer, better future for themselves and their families."

The president said he has been "touched by the generosity of Americans" who have written him emails and letters in recent weeks offering to open their homes to "refugees fleeing the brutality of ISIL," an acronym for the Islamic State. Obama gave the example of a woman in Florida who said her family came to the United States on the Mayflower, and that "welcoming others is part of what it means to be an American."

Related: This Lone Democratic Governor Is Calling For the US to Reject Syrian Refugees

Obama said another woman from Pennsylvania also wrote to him saying, "Money is tight for us in my household. But I have a guest room. I have a pantry full of food. We can do this."

His appeal comes amid a wave of backlash against Syrian refugees following the terror attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead. All of the attackers identified thus far have been French or Belgian nationals. A Syrian passport was found near the body of one suicide bomber, but evidence now suggests the document was forged. Several of the attackers traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State prior to the attacks.

Last Thursday, the US House of Representatives defied a veto threat by Obama and passed Republican-backed legislation that aims to halt the program that would admit 10,000 Syrian refugees to the US over the next year, and intensify pre-admission screening processes.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said it was important to act quickly "when our national security is at stake."

Condemning what many perceive as a threat posed by the possibility that jihadists could enter the United States disguised as refugees, Obama again underscored the already stringent vetting process that asylum seekers must undertake.

Related: Islamophobic Attacks Have Spiked in the US Since the Paris Attacks

"No refugee can enter our borders until they undergo the highest checks of anyone traveling to the United States," Obama said on Thursday. "That was the case before Paris and it's the case now."

At a joint press conference following a meeting with French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday, Obama praised France's resilience in the wake of terrorism, noting Hollande's determination to go ahead with the plan to admit an additional 30,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. Obama turned to the words of the poet Emma Lazarus, whose 1883 sonnet The New Colossus is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

"On the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France, there are words we know so well: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.' That's the spirit that makes America," Obama said. "That's the spirit we need today." 

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