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Americans by Choice

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Many immigrants, and prospective immigrants, take a dim view of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). After all, this is the government agency (once known as the INS) which acts as gatekeeper to legal immigration to the U.S., and decides the fate of the millions who seek U.S. citizenship. The words “bureaucratic,” “unpredictable,” and even “unfair” come to mind.

It may come as a surprise, then, that USCIS, in addition to its regular functions, celebrates outstanding immigrants. It has a program called the “Outstanding American by Choice Initiative” that recognizes the contributions of naturalized U.S. citizens. According to USCIS, “Through civic participation, professional achievement, and responsible citizenship, recipients of this honor have demonstrated their commitment to this country and to the common civic values that unite us as Americans.”

Since the program’s establishment in 2006, more than 80 immigrants from 35 countries have been honored. Among the honorees have been Indian-born PepsiCo Chair and CEO Indra K. Nooyi, and Chinese-born Stanford University Professor and Liver Cancer Program Director Samuel So, M.D.

The most recent “Outstanding American by Choice” award went to Polish-born Holocaust-survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein, who came to the United States in 1947. Klein was born in 1924, and spent the years from 1939 to 1945 in labor and concentration camps, and on the run, fleeing German troops. By the close of the war, her parents, siblings and friends had been killed, and she was homeless. It was then that she met Kurt Klein, a U.S. Army Intelligence Officer whom she eventually married.

Klein, an author, humanitarian and activist, lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is the founder of Citizenship Counts, an organization whose mission is to “educate students on the tenets of citizenship, inspire their pride in America, and encourage them to participate in community service.” She is the author of several books, including the memoir All But My Life, which has been in print for over 50 years and served as the inspiration for the 1995 Academy Award-winning documentary “One Survivor Remembers.”

It’s not surprising that an immigrant, someone who chose to come to the United States, touts the virtues of U.S. citizenship. Most Americans didn’t decide to be Americans any more than they chose their gender, race or ethnicity. They were just born that way. Immigrants, on the other hand, had to make a choice to leave their home countries and establish themselves in the U.S.

For some immigrants, this choice is motivated by religious, ethnic or political persecution in their native land; others seek to be reunited with family members already in the U.S., and still others are in pursuit of economic and professional opportunity. Regardless whether the immigrant is a holder of an advanced degree who was recruited by a U.S. university or corporation, or a person with only a few years of schooling trying to gain a toe-hold in the U.S. economy, immigration represents a choice, and not always an easy one.

Few Americans, immigrants or not, have a story as remarkable as Mrs. Klein’s. We can follow her example of tolerance, education and service. As she notes, “To perpetuate the miracle that is America we must teach our children about its rich history as a nation of immigrants who chose this country and have given meaning to its ideals.” This responsibility falls upon Americans born here, as well as upon the 38 million people who live in the U.S. but were born abroad.

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