Editor’s note: This post was originally published in Spanish as an op-ed on Univision.com.
I am the son of immigrants. My family’s story is an immigrant story. It is an American story.
My parents were born in the Dominican Republic, and my maternal grandfather was ambassador to the United States until he spoke out against Rafael Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship in the 1930s. He was declared persona non grata, and my mother’s family was forced to move to New York City at the height of the Great Depression.
My father fled the same regime a few years later. He served with distinction in the United States Army and worked the rest of his life serving veterans as a physician at a Veteran’s Affairs hospital. Like so many immigrants, he dedicated his career to serving the country that had given him hope, opportunity, and the promise of a better life.
Eventually, my parents settled in Buffalo, New York – I wouldn’t trade for anything the experience of having grown up in a bilingual and bicultural household. I gained an appreciation for the struggle and sacrifice of those who came before me. I learned that diversity is a source of America’s strength and vitality. I saw every day the thousands of ways that Latinos contributed to the economic, social, cultural and political life of the nation. And I would eventually choose a career in public service because I saw no better way to lend meaning to the values and lessons that my immigrant parents instilled in me.
Of all of those important lessons, two in particular were informed by their immigrant experience, and I carry them with me to work every single day. First, to whom much is given, much is expected. And second, that education is the great equalizer.
On Monday, I had the privilege of addressing the National Immigrant Integration Conference in Miami, Fla., and I drew on those two lessons as I reflected on the integration of our immigrant communities in the United States. As we celebrate the progress we’ve made, we must recommit ourselves to continuing the path forward and fulfilling that basic bargain of America: that no matter who you are, or what you look like or where you come from, you can make it if you try.
To hold up our end of that bargain, we must pass common-sense immigration reform. It could add a trillion dollars to our economy, ensure businesses can attract talent from around the world and keep that talent within our shores. We encourage the best and brightest students to come study in the U.S. – young people with great promise in science, technology, engineering and more – yet our laws discourage them from staying, starting a business and contributing to American prosperity. Comprehensive immigration reform is an economic, a security and a moral imperative, and it will strengthen this country for generations to come. This week, as part of the administration’s efforts to make the moral and economic case for moving forward with reform as soon as possible, I will be visiting “Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform & Citizenship” on Capitol Hill. They are a group of religious and labor leaders who are fasting in support of commonsense immigration reform.
Ultimately, immigration reform is only one step towards integration – the topic of the integration conference. We can streamline the immigration process, secure our borders, reform our visa programs, and bring 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. But to successfully achieve immigrant integration, we must have sound, sturdy ladders of opportunity – pathways to the middle class must accompany pathways to citizenship for those willing to work hard and play by the rules.
Skills development is one of the pillars of President Obama’s strategy to grow the economy. We know we have the best workers in the world – both native- and foreign-born – but they need us to invest in their ability to compete now and in the future. I can’t think of a stronger path towards immigrant integration than a good-paying, middle-class job.
President Obama understands with great clarity that the truest measure of our economic success as a nation is not abundance, but widely-shared prosperity, a thriving middle class, and the opportunity for American businesses and their workers to create both. We are, fundamentally, a nation of immigrants. It has been and will continue to be America’s greatest strength – a critical component of our nation’s economic engine. By passing immigration reform and investing in the skills and education of our workers, we can ensure immigrants will continue contributing to that success, just like my parents and generations of immigrants before them.