Garland calls on Americans to overcome polarization in emotional Ellis Island speech

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NEW YORK — Attorney General Merrick Garland addressed the urgent” need to overcome the “intense polarization in America” in an impassioned and at times emotional speech on Saturday.

Garland delivered his remarks after administering the oath of allegiance to 200 new U.S. citizens at a naturalization ceremony on Ellis Island in New York.

“We must not allow the fractures between us to fracture our democracy,” Garland said. “We are all in this together. We are all Americans.”

In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Garland choked back tears as he reflected on his own family’s immigration story, and the religious persecution that led some of his relatives to seek refuge on Ellis Island early in the 20th century.

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks, with an American flag in the background.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers a statement at the U.S. Department of Justice on Aug. 11 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

He shared the story of his grandmother, one of five children born to a Jewish family in what is now Belarus, who fled religious persecution during World War II. Only three of them made it to the United States, however, including his grandmother. The other two, he said, “were killed in the Holocaust.”

“If not for America, there is little doubt that the same would have happened to my grandmother,” Garland said, his voice quivering. “But this country took her in. And under the protection of our laws, she was able to live without fear of persecution.

“That protection,” he continued, “is what distinguishes America from so many other countries.”

This message, and the welcoming scene at Ellis Island, stood in stark contrast to those seen this week on Martha’s Vineyard, and outside Vice President Kamala Harris’s residence in Washington, D.C., where migrants (many of them Venezuelan asylum-seekers) found themselves in the middle of a bitter political fight between the Biden administration and Republican governors of Southern border states, who blame what they see as lax immigration policies for the record number of migrants apprehended along the Mexican border this year.

A woman wearing an African headdress and another in a batik outfit sit with other prospective citizens holding small American flags at a naturalization ceremony at Ellis Island.
A naturalization ceremony at Ellis Island in New York on Sept. 17. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

The Biden administration also faced criticism from immigration advocates this week, following reports that it is looking to expand its use of Title 42, a Trump-era policy that uses the pandemic as justification to immediately turn away migrants apprehended at the border, even if they may have legitimate claims of asylum.

Many experts have cited the policy, which the Biden administration has publicly sought to repeal, as a key contributor to the record number of border apprehensions, which include many repeat crossers.

Garland’s remarks also come amid an ongoing court battle between the Department of Justice and former President Donald Trump over classified documents that FBI agents seized from Trump’s Florida estate last month. The Justice Department, and Garland himself, have been accused by the former president and his allies of playing politics in its ongoing criminal investigation into the possible mishandling of sensitive government documents that were taken from the White House after Trump left office last year.

In recent rulings granting Trump's request to appoint a special master, the federal judge overseeing the case has suggested that it requires different treatment because it involves a former president.

"As a function of Plaintiff's former position as President of the United States, the stigma associated with the subject seizure is in a league of its own," said a Sept. 5 decision from U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee. "A future indictment, based to any degree on property that ought to be returned, would result in reputational harm of a decidedly different order of magnitude."

A toddler looks disconsolately over his mother's shoulder as a number of migrants wait to be fed.
A mother and child in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., on Sept. 15 stand outside the St. Andrew's Parrish House, where migrants were given lunch with food donated by the community. (Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Cannon also noted in a Sept. 15 ruling that the "principles of equity require the Court to consider the specific context at issue, and that consideration is inherently impacted by the position formerly held by Plaintiff."

Garland, who typically refrains from engaging in politics, did not address either debate, but instead talked about the importance of the rule of law in upholding democracy.

“The rule of law means that the law treats each of us alike,” he said. “There is not one rule for friends, another for foes; one rule for the powerful, another for the powerless; one rule for the rich, another for the poor; or different rules, depending upon one’s race or ethnicity or country of origin.”

Saturday was the 235th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, and the Ellis Island event kicked off a week of special naturalization ceremonies around the country orchestrated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to celebrate “the connection between the Constitution and citizenship.”

New U.S. citizens raise their hands to swear the oath.
Attorney General Merrick Garland swore in 200 new United States citizens at the Ellis Island naturalization ceremony on Saturday. (Credit: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Ahead of the ceremony, “America the Beautiful” played over speakers as citizenship candidates and their loved ones filtered into the Great Hall, where 12 million immigrants before them were once processed upon arriving in the United States. The 200 new citizens sworn in Saturday came from 57 different countries, including Albania, China, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Japan, Lebanon, Moldova, Nepal, Pakistan and Venezuela.

Among them were Joyce Ramdan, who moved to the U.S. from Guyana in 1996. She said she finally decided to join her children and grandchildren in becoming a citizen earlier this year, so that she could have more security and freedom to travel. Ramdan told Yahoo News she was “excited” and “happy to be a citizen, so that I can vote.”

A woman in an orange headdress, seated with other prospective citizens, holds a program for the ceremony and a flag.
People attend a naturalization ceremony at Ellis Island on Saturday. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

Voting was also the reason why Nick Parker, a native of the United Kingdom, decided to become a citizen after 13 years in the United States. Parker told Yahoo News he’d driven down with his wife and two daughters to the city from Westchester, N.Y., for the ceremony, and by the time they’d arrived at Ellis Island, it had already been a long morning with a lot of time spent waiting in line.

When asked if he was excited to hear the attorney general speak, Parker’s face lit up with surprise.

“Oh, I didn’t know! I had no idea,” he said, adding, “We haven’t really been told a lot.”

“That’s why there’s so many people,” he said, taking in the long lines of people around him with a new appreciation. “Well, that’s super cool.”