WASHINGTON (AP) – One came from northeast England. Another came from the former Soviet Union. A third was born in Canada to parents whoâ€™d fled the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
Several witnesses who testified in the House impeachment inquiry this week chose to highlight their immigrant backgrounds, sharing their familiesâ€™ stories in highly personal opening statements. They drew a connection to how those experiences led them to public service and a strong desire to safeguard U.S. national security.
Their stories offered a sharp counterpoint to President Donald Trump, who has often derided immigrants as a threat to American national security.
â€œI can say with confidence that this country has offered for me opportunities I never would have had in England,â€ former National Security Council official Fiona Hill testified Thursday. She spoke in what she called a â€œvery distinctive working-classâ€ British accent that would have impeded her professional advancement at home, but that â€œnever set me back in America.â€
On Tuesday, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer who works with the National Security Council, testified that his family fled to the U.S. from the Soviet Union when he was 3. He said in his opening statement that he and his brothers felt compelled to serve in the military to repay the country that had offered them refuge from authoritarian oppression.
â€œIn Russia, my act of expressing concern to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions, and offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life,â€ he told the committee. He expressed gratitude for his â€œfather’s brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free, free of fear for mine and my family’s safety.â€
â€œDad, I am sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected professionals. Talking to our elected professionals is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago,â€ he added, assuring his father: â€œDo not worry. I will be fine.â€
It was a similar story for Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, who immigrated to the U.S. at age 3 from Canada. Her father had fled the Soviets, while her mother had grown up in Nazi Germany.
â€œTheir 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,â€ she told lawmakers, explaining that she joined the foreign service with â€œno agenda other than to pursue our stated foreign policy goals.â€
â€œMy service is an expression of gratitude for all that this country has given to me and to my family,â€ she said.
Another witness, Gordon Sondland, the presidentâ€™s ambassador to the European Union, described at one point how his parents had fled Europe during the Holocaust, first moving to Uruguay and then settling in Seattle.
â€œLike so many immigrants, my family was eager for freedom and hungry for opportunity,â€ he said.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said after listening to Hillâ€™s opening statement that her story about fulfilling her fatherâ€™s dream of one day moving to America reminded him of Vindmanâ€™s.
â€œThe few immigrant stories that we have heard just in the course of these hearings are among the most powerful I think Iâ€™ve ever heard,â€ Schiff said Thursday. â€œYou and Colonel Vindman and others are the best of this country and you came here by choice. And we are so blessed that you did, so welcome.â€
Yet those immigrant roots also opened several witnesses to criticism. Republican members, for instance, raised the fact that Vindman, who appeared in his uniform, had been repeatedly offered the position of defense minister by the government of Ukraine. He reported the offers to his superiors and quickly dismissed them.
â€œI guess Mr. Castor is implying maybe you have got some dual loyalty, which is, of course, an old smear we have heard many times in our history,â€ Rep. Sean Maloney, D-N.Y. said at one point, referring to Steve Castor, the committeeâ€™s Republican attorney.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said the line of questioning â€œmay have come cloaked in a Brooks Brothers suit and in parliamentary language,â€ but was â€œdesigned exclusively to give the right-wing media an opening to question your loyalties.â€
Hill was also asked about the attacks on Vindman and suggestions of dual loyalty.
â€œI think itâ€™s very unfortunate,â€ she said, describing the countryâ€™s immigrant history as â€œthe essence of America.â€
With the exception of very few, she added: â€œEveryone immigrated to the United States at some time in their family history. And this is what, for me, really does make America great.â€