Earlier this week, we had the chance to host more than 100 immigrant leaders, federal officials, students, and others at a special screening of Citizen USA: A 50-State Road Trip, an HBO documentary by filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi that looks at these ceremonies through the eyes of the immigrants taking the oath of citizenship.
I couldn’t help but think of my own experience. I too am an American by choice. Sort of. My parents brought me to the United States at a young age so I technically had no choice in the matter. But by the time I was eligible to apply for citizenship as an adult, there was no question in my mind. This was my home. I felt like an American already, I just needed the certificate to prove it.
In the documentary, you get to see the amazing diversity of immigrants in America. Among those featured are men and women from all across the globe, and everyone from students, to entrepreneurs, to PhDs in nuclear physics. Through their stories they highlight what makes America so exceptional: our tolerance of every religion, our support for those with disabilities so that they too could fulfill their potential, and equal rights and equal opportunities for women. As one of those interviewed put it, in America, “hard work pays off.”
When I first came to Washington as a student I was told I couldn’t be placed as an intern in Congress or at the White House because I wasn’t a citizen. For someone passionate about government and who saw himself as an American, that was a tough thing to hear. But in the end it may have made my swearing in ceremony in April of 2000 that much more meaningful. I dedicated myself to working in the public policy arena and with government officials. Less than nine years later, and after a lot of hard work, I was being sworn in again, this time to serve the President of the United States of America. As I took that oath I looked back on my own life. The challenges my parents faced as immigrants to provide for my sister and me. The above and beyond effort my dad made to make sure I went to college. The internships I could only look at from a distance. And the naturalization ceremony that finally made everything possible. Spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t seen the 50-State Road Trip documentary…the filmmaker concludes that the American Dream is alive and well. I certainly believe itis. Still, I know that as we seek a more perfect union we all have a lot of hard work to do.
As a citizen by choice, I’m proud to work in an Administration that is making progress on immigrant integration. I’m also proud that I work for a President who recognizes that for all of us who made it through, far too many good people are lost today in a broken immigration system that is failing to meet America’s economic needs. The President has repeatedly called for reform that ends a misguided policy that results in our universities training some of the brightest minds in the world, only to have them sent back overseas the moment they graduate to compete against us. The President has forcefully advocated for students who are a lot like me, brought to the United States at a young age, who know no other home and are ready to contribute to the country they grew up in. The President has made it clear that it makes no sense to maintain a broken immigration system that forces immigrant workers into the shadows, while unscrupulous businesses break the rules and get away with it at the expense of those who do follow the rules. As we work to renew the American Dream and build an economy for the 21st century, fixing the broken immigration system is absolutely fundamental. Citizenship Day and Constitution Week remind us that if we have an immigration system that works, the talent and energy of immigrants can help continue to fuel our nation’s growth and prosperity, just as immigrants have done throughout our history. That’s what makes America exceptional.
Luis Miranda is White House Director of Hispanic Media