Why Citizenship Matters

As Hispanic Heritage Month gets underway, I find myself thinking about my parents and their early days in the United States. I consider what America represented to my parents back then - a safe harbor after fleeing the regime of President Rafael Trujillo, a notorious dictator.

But I know that relief was mixed with uncertainty, too. They didn't know if they would ever return to the land where their ancestors lived for centuries. They couldn't say if they would ever again bite into a fresh papaya or feel the warm Caribbean air. They had never seen snow before, and they were about to see a lot of it. I think often of the courage my parents had to summon to start their lives anew, which was always matched by the gratitude they felt to the United States of America for making it all possible.

My parents didn't feel that they had any choice but to leave the Dominican Republic. They did, however, choose to become Americans, and they lived American values every day. My father earned his citizenship by serving in the Army during World War II. He devoted his life to caring for our nation's veterans at a VA hospital in Buffalo, New York. That desire to serve fellow Americans propelled my four siblings into medical careers, too. My mother fiercely valued education. She entered college the same year I did, in 1979, and graduated eight years later. She was a remarkable role model for all of us.

To this day, I can draw a straight line between everything they taught my siblings and me, and what I have the privilege to work on now at the Department of Labor. They taught us that education was the great equalizer. That's why we're making sure that all Americans can access the skills and training they need to compete for the jobs of today and tomorrow. Above all, my parents raised us to work hard, aim high, and make sure the ladder was down for the next guy. There's no value more American than that.

Fortunately for us all, my family's story is not unique. Millions of new Americans enrich the fabric of our nation in much the same way that my parents gave back to their communities and inspired their children. They did not simply choose to come here because America is great, they contributed to its greatness by their words and deeds, helping secure a bright future for us all.

That's why I am proud to "Stand Stronger" with President Obama in supporting the Citizenship Awareness Campaign, which encourages eligible immigrants to take an important step in their American journey and commit to citizenship. In taking that oath, my parents became part of something greater than themselves, a point of pride they would cherish for the rest of their lives. As they pledged "true faith and allegiance" to the country that gave them so much, they became equal citizens, with the same freedom to pursue happiness as any other American.

Years after my parents made the United States their home, I had the joy of traveling to the Dominican Republic with my kids. They saw where it all started, and how their grandparents' values survived and thrived in America. We get to celebrate and honor our heritage while cherishing the sacred rights and responsibilities that come with being born in the U.S.A.

As President Obama said last November, the constant influx of immigrants to America has "shaped our character as a people with limitless possibilities - people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose." This month and every month, let's think of how we can support our fellow Americans as we make sure those possibilities remain limitless.