Often lost in our national debate about immigration is the timeless truth that no one immigrates to the United States just for themselves. Immigration stories are family stories. That’s true of my own family’s immigration story.
In the 1920s both sets of my grandparents set out from their respective homelands in Turkey and Poland seeking a better life elsewhere. They settled in Cuba. Language wasn’t a barrier since three of them spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish).
Decades later, though, they set out again, this time to flee communism.
My parents and grandparents came to the United States — all except my maternal grandfather, John Policar, a shoemaker from Turkey. He helped others leave Cuba during a wave of Jewish migration following Fidel Castro’s rise. He died of illness before he could join them.
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Born to refugees, I was raised on stories about my grandfather and what many families endured — tales that resonate when I hear immigration stories today. Those stories and the example of my grandfather have driven my passion for our work at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. USCIS administers immigration benefits such as green cards, visas, work authorization and citizenship.
Our nation has rules for who can come here, who can work here and who can stay here. USCIS continues to process cases based on current statutory laws, regulations and policies. It will remain focused on our mission to administer U.S. immigration laws, keep the homeland secure and provide a high level of service to our customers.
Those customers include lawful permanent residents, many of whom have lived here long enough to seek citizenship. Promoting this key to full participation in society helps preserve American values and has been a nonpartisan effort. It also fulfills a congressional mandate. The Homeland Security Act of 2002, creating the Department of Homeland Security, established an Office of Citizenship within our agency to promote instruction and training on citizenship responsibilities for those interested in becoming naturalized citizens. USCIS has had two directors appointed by a Republican president and two appointed by a Democratic president. All of us have been committed to promoting citizenship.
I am proud that in the two and a half years that I have served as director, almost 2 million people have taken the Oath of Allegiance, the final step in naturalization. The value and beauty of U.S. citizenship is a timeless ideal that is, and should be, honored by Americans of all political beliefs, countries of origin, faiths and walks of life. I encourage our future federal leaders to continue to stand for and promote the value of U.S. citizenship.
Because the lifeblood of a democracy is the participation of its citizens, we have enhanced our efforts to assist communities, public libraries and local organizations in supporting immigrant integration and citizenship education.
Recently, I had the honor to recognize an Outstanding American by Choice, Samantha Power, the Irish-born U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. I couldn’t agree more with her advice to new citizens: “Don’t listen to those who say you have to choose between being a proud American and a proud immigrant. You can be both. You must be both.”
Of course, applying for citizenship is a personal choice. But I believe some immigrants may feel more inclined to take that step if they feel socially accepted. It’s striking to compare the current political tone about immigration with 30 years ago when President Ronald Reagan signed the last comprehensive revision of our immigration laws:
“The act I am signing today is the product of one of the longest and most difficult legislative undertakings of recent memory. It has truly been a bipartisan effort, with this administration and the allies of immigration reform in the Congress, of both parties, working together to accomplish these critically important reforms. Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship.”
In a Gallup survey last year, 72 percent of respondents agreed that on the whole, immigration is a good thing for this country today. As an immigration official, a child of refugees and an American, I find this reassuring — and not surprising. After all, we are a nation of immigrants. And at the heart of this issue we all want the same things: the opportunity to work hard and contribute positively to society, the ability to care for our families by earning a decent wage and for our children to do better in life than we did.
Nothing could be more American.
León Rodríguez is director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.