Approximately 1,200 people from 80 different countries recently took part in a large naturalization ceremony in Austin where I was asked to speak. The ceremony recognized the hard work, dedication and patriotism of the newest citizens of The United States of America.
I say newest citizens because, by definition, it was the first day that they officially enjoyed the rights and privileges of a U.S. citizen. But they’re not new here - they have been contributing to this nation for a very long time. Their American story did not start today. It started years ago - in small towns and cities around the world. It started with dreams and those dreams were made real by sacrifice. Leaving one home, for a new one. Leaving a familiar place for a place unknown.
Making that kind of sacrifice takes a great deal of courage. A courage that immigrants have. A courage that all of them have.
I am the son of a Hungarian immigrant and the grandson of two Eastern European immigrants. My wife Carmel is the granddaughter of immigrants from Mexico. To put it simply, my life, Carmel’s life, and the lives of our children and new grandchild in this country, would not have happened without the courage of immigrants.
My father and his family lived in a Hungarian province of Serbia during both World Wars. They were Jewish and because of their religion, the Nazis imprisoned them in concentration camps and subjected them to terrible acts of oppression and violence. They lost their freedom. They lost their homes, their jobs and many of their friends and family members died along the way.
But my father, his sister, his cousins and my grandfather survived. And after the war ended, my grandfather shared a dream with his remaining family - that one day, they would immigrate to the United States to live a better life. And my dad, Steven, made that dream come true.
After arriving in the U.S. at the age of 19, he served in the U.S. military because it offered a faster path to citizenship. He started a family in Chicago. And because of him, I am here in Texas.
My family’s story is not a new one in this country. In fact, this country is built on millions of similar stories. Everywhere we look, from Texas, to New York, to Washington to California, we see the work of immigrants. We see communities they’ve created and contributed to. We see buildings that they’ve built. We see businesses that they’ve started. We see faces, we see neighbors, we see friends. We see The United States of America reflected in the lives of those who chose to be a part of it. Who came here to contribute.
Immigrants have been making an impact on this country for a long, long time. We have worked. We have gone to school. We have made our community better, richer, and stronger, for many, many years.
That afternoon at the ceremony, we celebrated our newest American citizens, but we also celebrated all that they have meant to this nation since they arrived. They have always made a difference. Their contributions have always mattered.
When I looked into the audience, I saw all of them, and I knew that even before they were officially U.S. citizens, we were already connected as Americans. All of our stories are entwined, because this country has always been built upon the courage of immigrants. That’s the legacy of America. That’s the history of America. That’s the future of America. And everyone is a part of it.
I congratulate all immigrants on a life-changing accomplishment. And I stand here in awe of their courage.
Gregory L. Fenves is the president of The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram , Austin American Statesman and the McAllen Monitor.
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