A week of back-to-back impeachment hearings in Washington may have been marred by bickering between Democrats and Republicans and thus unpleasant to watch, but at least in one aspect, they inspired confidence in the American experiment.
As Americans watched the House of Representatives conduct contentious public hearings — steps toward the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump — viewers got a reminder of the important role that immigrants have played in the nation's development and the opportunities the country has afforded them.
Four key figures in the impeachment hearings are naturalized citizens, two of them children of refugees. Of the four, two earned positions in the White House itself, working on the ultra-sensitive National Security Council. A third worked her way up to the top of the country’s diplomatic corps. A fourth was seated on the dais, as an elected congressman and a member of the House Committee on Intelligence.
Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch is the child of immigrants who fled first from the Soviet Union, and then from the Nazi occupation of Europe. Born in Canada, she grew up in Connecticut and became a naturalized U.S. citizen when she turned 18. She went on to graduate from Princeton University and the National Defense University, and to serve out a distinguished career in the State Department including three ambassadorships.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was born in Ukraine, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. His family fled to the U.S. when he was a small child. Like both of his brothers, Vindman joined the U.S. Army, earning numerous commendations including a Purple Heart for wounds suffered in combat in Iraq. He is now Director for European Affairs on the National Security Council.
Fiona Hill, who until recently served in a senior position on the NSC, where she was Vindman’s functional superior, opened her testimony by describing herself as “American by choice.” Born in a hardscrabble coal mining town in Northern England, she came to the U.S. as an adult, attended Harvard University, and became a citizen in 2002.
Each of the three, at some point, found themselves being questioned by a fellow immigrant. Illinois Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democratic member of the intelligence committee, was born in New Delhi, India, and came to the U.S. as an infant. He went on to earn degrees from Princeton and Harvard universities, and was elected to Congress in 2017.
Lieutenant Colonel Vindman’s family came to the U.S. in 1973, with the help of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.
Melanie Nezer, the senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, said that watching immigrants and refugees who have assumed high-ranking positions in the federal government “just shows you the benefits that refugees bring to this country.”
“It shows the talent, the dedication, the patriotism -- all of those things that are contributions that refugees make,” she said. “It’s not just in later generations, but even in the first generation, when they arrive. You see how grateful they are for the opportunity to start new lives in this country and how dedicated they are to giving back.”
To be sure, participating in the public sphere also comes with its own dangers.
Yovanovitch was personally singled out by President Trump for attacks on Twitter, and was the focus of a concerted effort by supporters of the president to force her from her post as ambassador to Ukraine. Vindman found himself the target of online abuse so severe that the Army reportedly considered moving him and his family to safe housing on a military base.
Nevertheless, both appeared before Congress eager to express their dedication and gratitude to the country that took their families in.
“My service is an expression of gratitude for all that this country has given my family and me,” Yovanovitch testified. “My late parents did not have the good fortune to come of age in a free society. My father fled the Soviets before ultimately finding refuge in the United States. My mother’s family escaped the USSR after the Bolshevik revolution, and she grew up stateless in Nazi Germany, before eventually making her way to the United States. Their personal histories—my personal history—gave me both deep gratitude towards the United States and great empathy for others.”
Vindman, wearing his dress military uniform, used his testimony to hit many of the same notes. “Next month will mark 40 years since my family arrived in the United States as refugees,” he said. “When my father was 47 years old he left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over in the United States so that his three sons could have better, safer lives.”
“His courageous decision inspired a deep sense of gratitude in my brothers and myself and instilled in us a sense of duty and service,” he added. “All three of us have served or are currently serving in the military. Our collective military service is a special part of our family’s story in America.”