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Michelle Obama: Immigration is president’s top legislative priority

First lady Michelle Obama in January 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
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Michelle Obama participated in the swearing-in of 50 new citizens Wednesday to express her support for stalled efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

"Today, here in Washington, folks are still debating whether or not to fix our immigration system, even though just about everyone agrees that it is broken," she said at the close of the ceremony held in the rotunda of the National Archives. "I want you all to know that my husband has made this his top legislative priority because, at the end of the day, this fight isn't just about principles, it's about real people."

The naturalized citizens she spoke before represented more than a dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bolivia and Zimbabwe. Many waved American flags excitedly as they stood before the nation's founding documents and completed the oath of citizenship.

They were an important backdrop for the first lady as she pressed her husband's stagnant immigration agenda.

In fundraising speeches during campaign season, Michelle Obama has voiced her support for a more liberal immigration policy. But her participation in the naturalization ceremony to push the issue was a rare use of her bully pulpit, which she has generally reserved for topics such as education and healthy eating.

She wove stories of immigrants into her brief remarks and noted that one in four U.S. businesses is started by an immigrant, and that 30,000 permanent residents serve in the military. The first lady did not directly address the number of immigrants living in the country illegally, which, along with the Obama administration's deportation policy, are sticking points on the contentious issue.

Fixing the nation's broken immigration system has dogged the Obama administration since it's earliest days in office.

In 2010, while visiting a local elementary school with the first lady of Mexico, a girl raised her hand and asked Michelle Obama whether her mother would be deported.

“My mom said, I think, she says that Barack Obama’s taking everybody away that doesn’t has papers.” After Michelle Obama replied, “Yeah, well, that’s something we have to work on, right, to make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers, right?” the girl said, “But my mom doesn’t have [papers].”

Four years later, any chance of overhauling the nation's immigration policy to deal with the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants is generally considered to be dead in Congress.

"As citizens we do not shut the doors of opportunity behind us. We preserve the opportunity of America," she said, noting that other than a few ethnicities, all Americans can trace their ancestry to an immigrant.

Top federal officials often participate in naturalization ceremonies, and between 600,000 and 700,000 immigrants become citizens each year, said Joanne Ferreira, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson administered the oath of allegiance at the National Archives ceremony.