The Immigrant Witnesses of the Impeachment Hearings by Masha Gessen

Wouldn’t it be not merely just but also poetic if the testimony of immigrants brought down President Donald Trump? Three of the key witnesses in the impeachment hearings are immigrants to the United States, and at least one more is a first-generation American. All of them—the former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and the former National Security Council official Fiona Hill—mentioned their immigrant backgrounds in their opening statements. That each of them felt compelled to say something—and what exactly each of them chose to say—is a powerful comment on the predicament in which they and we find ourselves.

They expressed gratitude to the United States. Yovanovitch stated it most clearly:

My service is an expression of gratitude for all that this country has given to me and to my family. 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 U.S.S.R. after the Bolshevik Revolution, and she grew up stateless in Nazi Germany, before also 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, like the Ukrainian people, who want to be free.

Two witnesses who are as different as perhaps any two men can be—Vindman and Sondland, one a career military man who has never sought the spotlight, the other a wealthy hotelier who paid, via a million-dollar donation, for what seemed like a glamorous ambassadorship and who mugged for the cameras as he described locker-room-style conversations with the President—did something strikingly similar in their statements. Both expressed, in a single breath, gratitude to their parents, who made the decision to emigrate, and a sense of indebtedness to the United States for giving them a haven. “Like so many immigrants, my family was eager for freedom and hungry for opportunity,” Sondland said. “They raised my sister and me to be humble, hardworking, and patriotic, and I am forever grateful for the sacrifices they made on our behalf. Public service has always been important to me.”

Vindman, whose father emigrated in late middle age, with three young sons and his late wife’s mother, said, “Next month will mark forty years since my family arrived in the United States as refugees. When my father was forty-seven years old he left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over in the United States, so his three sons could have better and 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.”

Vindman continued, “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.” All four of these witnesses noted their service to the country. “As a young man, I decided that I wanted to spend my life serving this nation that gave my family refuge from authoritarian oppression, and for the last twenty years it has been an honor to represent and protect this great country,” Vindman said.

“I joined the Foreign Service during the Reagan Administration and subsequently served three other Republican Presidents, as well as two Democratic Presidents,” Yovanovitch said, stressing that it was the country—not a particular political party, much less one person—that inspired her loyalty. “It was my great honor to be appointed to serve as an Ambassador three times—twice by George W. Bush and once by Barack Obama.”

“For the best part of three decades, I have built a career as a nonpartisan, nonpolitical national-security professional focussing on Europe and Eurasia and especially the former Soviet Union,” Hill said, similarly pointing out that she worked for both Republican and Democratic leaders. “I have served our country under three Presidents: in my most recent capacity under President Trump as well as in my former position of National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In that role, I was the intelligence community’s senior expert on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine.”

The witnesses appeared to note their service in order to show that they had been grateful to the United States not only in word but also in deed. Hill’s very ability to build a career as a Russia expert was the result of immigrating to the United States. “I can say with confidence that this country has offered for me opportunities I never would have had in England,” she said. “I grew up poor, with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties, this would have impeded my professional advancement. This background has never set me back in America.”

But they also seemed to be protecting themselves against suspicion or accusation of dual loyalty. Two of the witnesses—Vindman and Yovanovitch—have been maligned by right-wing media and Republican politicians, including the President. Vindman has faced down near-explicit accusations of espionage. In a country that still thinks of itself as a nation of immigrants—although, under Trump, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services dropped this phrase from its mission statement—it is striking that highly accomplished public servants who have lived here their entire conscious lives would think it necessary to acknowledge their otherness, never mind try to preëmpt suspicion of disloyalty.

But their statements also served as reminders of what the United States had promised them and their families: true meritocratic opportunity, freedom from oppression, and safety. It has delivered on its promises, they said, and they have paid it back. They have not betrayed their adopted country. But, though they did not say it, it has betrayed them. It repaid Yovanovitch’s life in public service by subjecting her to humiliation and a summary firing by people who did not have a quarter of her expertise. It sent Sondland into a situation where he was sure to make a fool of himself while doing foreign-policy damage he couldn’t even comprehend. It placed before Hill an impossible choice: work for an Administration built on contempt for the pillars of her career—expertise and international coöperation—or turn her back on an opportunity, possibly, to avert disaster or reduce harm. It exposed Vindman to harassment and threats serious enough that the Army was considering moving him and his family to a military base for protection.

It seems that Vindman’s assurance to his father—“Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth”—was a description of things as they ought to be, not necessarily as they are. So was, it seems, his statement that, thanks to his father’s decision to emigrate, he “can live free of fear.” Acting as public servants ought to act, these three witnesses—Hill, Vindman, and Yovanovitch—showed that no one takes the promise of this country as seriously as immigrants do. No one believes in it as earnestly.


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