An emotional Attorney General Merrick B. Garland addressed new citizens on Saturday at Ellis Island, the site of his family’s American origin story, and warned that the country had become dangerously divided by political factionalism, which has imperiled the democracy and the rule of law.
Mr. Garland was presiding over the oath of allegiance for 250 naturalized citizens at the iconic immigration processing center, on the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787. As the new Americans rose to recognize their home countries — about 60 of them, with origins from Albania to Yemen — he told them that the United States “wholeheartedly welcomes you.”
During a 10-minute speech in which he repeatedly stopped to collect himself, the attorney general recounted the tale of his grandmother’s flight from antisemitism in what is now Belarus before World War II, and the narrow escape to New York made by his wife’s mother, who fled Austria after Nazis annexed the country in 1938.
“My family story is what motivated me to choose a career in public service,” said the typically stoic attorney general, his voice dropping to a husky whisper. “I wanted to repay my country for taking my family in when they had nowhere else to go. I wanted to repay the debt my family owes this country for our very lives.”
Everything Mr. Garland says these days is parsed for deeper meaning — and prosecutorial clues — as the Justice Department plunges ahead with sprawling, open-ended investigations into former President Donald J. Trump and his allies. The attorney general often uses public appearances to address Mr. Trump and Trumpism in veiled but unmistakable terms, decrying division and vowing to hold “the powerful” accountable for crimes they commit.
More on the Trump Documents Inquiry
- Special Master: A federal judge granted former President Donald J. Trump’s request for an independent arbiter, known as a special master, to review the documents that the F.B.I. had seized from Mar-a-Lago, appointing Judge Raymond J. Dearie of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn.
- Access to Sensitive Records: The same federal judge enacted, and later refused to lift, a temporary ban on the Justice Department’s ability to access classified documents seized from Mr. Trump’s home. On Sept. 16, the agency asked an appeals court to let the F.B.I. regain access to the documents.
- Misleading Information: The National Archives told the Justice Department that a lawyer representing Mr. Trump indicated to the archives last year that boxes the former president had taken to Mar-a-Lago from the White House included only nonclassified material, according to a person briefed on the matter.
But Saturday’s speech came at a critical moment, as Mr. Garland commits to an inquiry into possible criminality by a former president who remains a political force, and has repeatedly attacked Mr. Garland, his department and the F.B.I.
Mr. Trump has claimed that he continues to enjoy executive privilege as a former president, despite legal precedent to the contrary, throughout his battle with the Justice Department over his retention of highly classified documents. Mr. Garland has rejected that argument, and the department in its court filings has pushed back against the idea that the former president deserves protections not afforded to other citizens who are under federal scrutiny.
“The protection of law — the rule of law — is the foundation of our system of government,” said Mr. Garland, a slight, upright figure standing under the soaring barrel vault in the immigration museum’s great hall, which served as the point of entry for millions of immigrants from 1892 to 1954.
“The rule of law means that the law treats each of us alike: There is not one rule for friends, another for foes; one rule for the powerful, another for the powerless; a rule for the rich, another for the poor,” he said, adding that the rule of law “is fragile, it demands constant effort and vigilance.”
It was incumbent on all Americans, he said, to “do what is right, even if that means doing what is difficult.”
Difficulties abound. In recent days, federal prosecutors have widened their inquiries into the former president’s role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, issuing more than 40 new subpoenas to potential witnesses. Mr. Trump scored an important legal victory, however, by securing the appointment of an outside arbiter to review highly sensitive government documents seized from his Florida home, Mar-a-Lago, on Aug. 8.
At the same time, the Republican Party is embracing Mr. Trump’s signature issue — illegal immigration — as a showcase theme for this fall’s midterm elections. On Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a possible Trump opponent in 2024, sent about 50 Venezuelan migrants to the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard in a publicity stunt.
Some Democrats have called upon Mr. Garland to launch a federal inquiry into Mr. DeSantis’s actions; a spokeswoman for the attorney general had no comment.
Mr. Garland, who wrote his speech with the care he once lavished on appellate decisions, had planned to speak about his support for immigrants long before Mr. DeSantis made his move, according to officials.
But recent developments added to the emotional stakes — and spurred memories of his grandmother’s flight from the Pale of Settlement, a broad swath of modern-day Eastern Europe and Russia where some of his Jewish ancestors had been among those confined, persecuted and eventually slaughtered by the Third Reich.
“My grandmother was one of five children,” he said, adding: “Three made it to the United States, including my grandmother, who came through the Port of Baltimore. Two did not make it. Those two were killed in the Holocaust.”
The attendees, who were in a festive, murmuring mood after taking their oaths, needed a few minutes to quiet down after Mr. Garland began speaking.
But the room eventually fell silent as he spoke about his own family, and many of the new citizens said as they later streamed out, citizenship certificates in hand, that his story resonated with them.
“It really got to me,” said Mamy Tai, 39, a babysitter from the Ivory Coast who now lives in Harlem. “I love America. I love that I get to be a citizen. Here, they give you a chance to be what you want to be.”