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Thoughts on Becoming an American Citizen

Growing up in Argentina, my friends and I looked up to the United States as the Promised Land, a country where we could fulfill our personal and professional dreams; a land where, because of its high regard for justice and human rights, the humblest could achieve their aspirations through hard work and full commitment.

Our connection and admiration for all things American varied according to our age. We were cowboys when children, famous sportsmen in adolescence, dedicated doctors or engineers or space scientists when we became older. We also felt as our own the pains of this country.

What follows are random examples of how political events in the U.S. affected us. John F. Kennedy had been the hero of our youth. We considered him the President who wanted to make America a better country, respectful of human rights and committed to keeping peace in the world. We thought that the Bay of Pigs’s operation was a misguided adventure, just a detour to what we anticipated would be one of best times for this country. Kennedy’s death shattered our hopes.

When Lyndon B. Johnson became President he contributed with legislation for the “Great Society” and the “War on Poverty.” He promoted civil rights and expanded Medicare and Medicaid, among other contributions. The Vietnam War was his undoing.

I came to the U.S. with my wife and daughter in 1971, shortly before my native country would go through one of its darkest periods in recent history. The military ruled the country and were responsible for thousands of “disappeared people”, an ignominious name for a tragic phenomenon.

President Richard Nixon pursued policies that culminated with the normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China and the end of the Vietnam War. We felt enriched by the wondrous exercise in democracy of the Watergate hearings, which brought back to us the sense that justice was still possible in the country. Nixon’s forced resignation in the face of impeachment culminated this dark historic period.

President Ford’s pardoning of President Nixon, although very controversial, probably contributed to healing the social ills in the country. President Jimmy Carter, who followed him, was one of the leaders most committed to human rights on a global scale. I believe he was the most underappreciated President in U.S. history. His continued devotion to social causes is an example to all.

I had the opportunity to meet him personally when Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Argentine Nobel peace laureate, invited me to translate for him at the meeting with Carter. I still remember my surprise when President Carter, with a great sense of humility, asked Pérez Esquivel, “What do you think, Adolfo, the U.S. should be doing in Central America?” At the time the region was being ravaged by war.

President Carter was followed by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton. President George W. Bush was responsible for initiating the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose disastrous human and economic costs will be felt for many years to come. Like many people around the world, we watched the sad spectacle of President Clinton’s impeachment. His serious private offense stopped the country’s normal proceedings for more than a year.

President Barak Obama made history in more ways than one. Not only was he the first African American elected to the U.S. highest office, but despite systematic opposition from Republican legislators he managed to lead a remarkable economic recovery in an overall climate of peace. None of these governments and events prepared us to the present threat of the undoing of social, economic and health care achievements that took so many years to attain.

While claiming to defend the common citizen, President Donald Trump is doing the opposite, with government policies that belie the truth of his assertion. From attempting to dismantle Obama Care -whose most progressive aspects the Republican legislators consistently opposed- to trying to enact economic legislation that favors mostly the rich in detriment of the poor and the middle class.

President Donald Trump’s statements about immigrants –particularly from Mexico and the rest of Latin America– ignore the tremendous contribution that immigrants from all over the world have made to this country’s development. At the same time, bellicose pronouncements by the President and leading officials increase the danger of a major war with North Korea, whose consequences can only be disastrous.

This country has been good to me and my family. We have enjoyed its freedoms and prospered professionally. However, I dread the consequences that the uncaring policies of the present administration may have on the common people and, even more dangerously, on world peace. I am glad I became an American citizen. I am saddened, however, that the beliefs I had when I was young are being systematically betrayed.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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