Like millions of other immigrant families, my family came to this country with not much more than the change in our pockets. Born in Guangzhou, China, I was four years old when we moved to the United States. I grew up in southwest Houston, where I now have the honor of serving as a member of the Texas House of Representatives.
While my family’s specific story may differ, our experiences echo those of other immigrants. Our fathers suffered long and brutal days working for little money in jobs that didn’t respect their intelligence or education. Our mothers scrimped and sacrificed to make ends meet, and to give us the best education possible. Our parents endured the physical hardships, endured the insults of people strange to them, and continued demeaning jobs because they believed in something better. Something better for us.
Over the decades, hard work and perseverance has lifted our family into middle class. Today, I am an attorney and state representative in one of the most diverse cities in America. Our family’s story is the story of immigrant families repeated countless times across the United States. Today, our families run successful businesses, employ millions of people, and we have a lifestyle envied by the entire world. We owe a debt of gratitude to our parents that is often unsaid, but felt deeply in the bonds of our families.
There is one perfect way to pay our parents back: give them power, give them respect, give them voice. Help them become citizens, and take them to vote.
In the nine years that I have been a volunteer with our monthly Citizenship and Immigration Forum, I have meet thousands of eligible people who have lived in this nation for decades without applying for citizenship. Some didn’t know that the law only required that they have a Green Card for five years, some never applied out of complacency. But, no matter the reason, the result has been that millions of immigrants are forgoing citizenship.
Citizenship means respect. As a citizen, you are a formal member of American society. You are able to vote and direct our democracy. You are able to enjoy the benefits and respect of being a citizen. You can look that one guy in the eyes and, when he asks you where you’re from for the third time, you just say: “the United States of America.”
Citizenship is power. Long before I became an elected official, our family treated every election as a time of celebration. Election Day was a reminder that we were U.S. citizens. We voted because voting made elected officials listen to our community. In America, no one pays attention to what you or your community wants unless you vote. Real power comes from the ballot box.
Citizenship is voice. None of the horrible things that have been said about immigrants in this election year are new. They were said to our parents’ faces, and whispered behind our backs. The difference is that it’s now being said at a national level. Voting is a way to yell back at those who mock and demean us. While your voice may not feel very loud on its own, when enough people are shouting, it starts adding up. Voting will give your immigrant community political power that is far greater than its physical presence.
I come from a culture where, even as an elected official, my parents cautioned me not to “rock the boat.” But, America is a nation where no one will address your community’s issues unless you are willing to create some waves. I and many other officials from immigrant communities would not have been elected without the help of voters from those communities. The only effective way to combat those who attack our communities is by voting. We must elect people who hear our voices, and are willing to engage in our causes.
In honor of Citizenship Day, Sept. 17, organizations across the country and collaborations like the New Americans Campaign are hosting workshops to provide free and low-cost help to those applying for citizenship. If your parents have not been naturalized to become U.S. citizens, ask them why. Find a citizenship workshop near you where you can get help applying. Push them to fill out the forms. Help them get it in the mail. If you and your family are already citizens, make sure you’re registered to vote. Then take them to vote this fall. Tell them it’s time for them to speak up and be respected, be powerful, and be heard. They have built a wonderful life in America; help them stand proud.
Gene Wu is a member of the Texas House of Representatives, representing District 137 in Houston.
This column is part of a series of op-eds by public officials about citizenship, published by New America Media in collaboration with the national, nonpartisan network New Americans Campaign. For more information about upcoming citizenship workshops near you, go to:newamericanscampaign.org/events.