“The one thing that truly makes America exceptional is the diversity and variety of experience of its citizens.”
Every year, 1199SEIU honors hundreds of members who become new American citizens with help from the 1199SEIU Citizenship Program.
This year’s 16th Annual Celebration of New Citizens at the union headquarters took on a special resonance, with the event taking place just one day after President Trump’s offensive comments about Haitian and African immigrants.
Sandy Vito, the Executive Director of the 1199 Training and Employment Funds, welcomed celebrants and invited guests. In her remarks Vito stressed inclusion and diversity as American values.
“We hear a lot about American exceptionalism. I believe that the one thing that truly makes America exceptional is the diversity and variety of experience of its citizens,” she said.
The event’s keynote speaker was Open Society Foundations President Patrick Gaspard, 1199SEIU’s former political director who served as White House Political Director and Ambassador to South Africa under President Barack Obama.
Gaspard, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Haitian parents, immigrated as a child with his family to the U.S.
“At the age of 18, I became a citizen of the glorious country of Haiti,” said Gaspard. “Then in the year 2008, with the help of 1199, I became a US citizen.”
He encouraged this year’s 568 new U.S. citizens to view their American citizenship as not just a right, but a responsibility. With voting, said Gaspard, comes power— a power new citizens must exercise to bring political change.
Anne Done, a new citizen and 1199 member who works as a Home Health Aide for Sunnyside Citywide Home Care Services, shared her story with the audience. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Done has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and used to work as a therapist in her native country. As an HHA she used her professional training to draw her patients out.
“I took care of an 80-year-old veteran from Puerto Rico who had cancer,” she said. “Sometimes, he felt depressed so I encouraged him to tell me stories about his life. When I was worried about money, he told me his situation during the Great Depression. This gave me hope.
“Now, I take care of an Italian woman. She is a hundred years old but she is so active! She inspires me to live life to the fullest. All of my clients taught me to live without regrets.”
Marcia Williamson, an 1199 member from Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital, was born in Jamaica and looks after her younger brother, Bobby, who has Down Syndrome.
“In Jamaica, we have no family, and there are no benefits and good health care for him. I knew that as an American citizen, Bobby would be safer, more secure, and have better options for his needs,” she said.
Williamson was granted citizenship in 1993. Her brother was denied because he couldn’t answer the civics questions, but a with recent government grant, the program is now able to admit a small number of non-members like Bobby Williamson.
Since its inception in 2001, 1199SEIU’s Citizenship Program has helped 11,500 members on the path to U.S. citizenship. Eligible members can take English and U.S.
Civics classes and receive legal advice and assistance with preparation of their citizenship application. Call (646) 473-8915 to register or obtain additional information and program requirements.