During his last State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama hit back at anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric that has dominated the public conversation about national security in recent months. He called for Americans to “reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion” and said the country needs to focus on fighting the Islamic State group in productive ways.

“As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” Obama said, using an acronym for the terrorist group. “Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.”

SOTU U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, Jan. 12. Photo: Reuters/Jim Bourg

He emphasized that Americans should not build up the threat of ISIS and should not accuse each other of trying to tear the country down. The president also reminded his audience of what he has done to fight terrorism during his term in office.

“For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut off ISIL’s financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters and stamp out their vicious ideology,” he said. “With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we are taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, and their weapons. We are training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria.”

One of Obama’s guests for the State of the Union address was a Syrian refugee named Refaai Hamo. A scientist, Hamo and his family fled Syria amid the country’s civil war and settled in Troy, Michigan in December, the New York Times reported. Hamo rose to prominence after the Humans of New York blog featured his photo and story last year.

The president typically uses his guests at the annual speech to highlight important issues of his presidency. The White House said this year’s group represents “who we are as Americans: inclusive and compassionate, innovative and courageous.”  

The invitation and Obama’s speech Tuesday stood in contrast to the many Republicans who have called for the United States to stop accepting refugees from the conflict-prone Middle East over concerns that potential terrorists might sneak into the country by posing as refugees. These fears were prompted by several high profile terror attacks last year in Paris and San Bernardino, California — both of which were linked to ISIS.

Obama announced in September that the U.S. would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees this year as hundreds of thousands continue to flee Syria due to its civil war and other conflicts. Despite Republicans’ concerns, the White House has said a pause or delay in accepting refugees is not necessary because screening procedures will ensure terrorists do not enter the United States. Still, Republican politicians and presidential candidates have continued to call for everything from a religious test for refugees to a complete ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

Those kinds of proposals were exactly what Obama spoke out against Tuesday.

“That’s why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong,” he said. “The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith.”

“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer,” he added. “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”