In Your Own Words: The Quiet Quest for Citizenship

“The Quiet Quest for Citizenship,” a four-part series about Foreign–born Professionals Critical to our Southwest Florida workforce, printed in The News-Press.

Every six months, Community Conversation Editor of The News-Press Tom Hayden appoints three citizens to join the editorial board of The News-Press. I was honored to be one along with Paul Flores, CEO of WastePro, and Katie Haas, senior director of Florida Business Operations for the Boston Red Sox. Appointees to the editorial board are required to attend meetings, ask questions, share opinions and write a guest commentary on a topic of their choice.

I have been troubled that our nation is roiling with immigration challenges. At one time in my career I was administratively responsible for Iowa’s nationally respected Refugee Services Center. Governor Bob Ray used it to assist more than 14,000 Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese refugees successfully relocate to the USA. Later, I helped then-retired Gov. Ray establish the Iowa Asian American Association which continues to flourish today.

Several foreign-born professionals are major contributors to the progress of the four states in which I have lived. They have helped me and my family. I have marveled at their struggles and been grateful for their contributions.

It dawned on me that the current immigration discussion has not sufficiently focused on the importance of these wonderful folks to our society. So, I decided to focus my News-Press commentary on the ones in Southwest Florida.

I identified 18 foreign-born leaders in Collier County and asked them if I could interview them to learn their stories, what they thought of the citizenship process and what advice they had for anyone wanting to become a citizen and for our policy makers. Eight agreed. I asked FGCU’s Gary Jackson for data and read a lot.

The result was about 6000 words … too much, of course, for one Op Ed piece. Hayden graciously edited my submission into the series that was printed in The News-Press.

Bottom-line: I learned so much … some about myself …  too much about our immigration system … and a stunning amount about the lives of my eight interviewees. Their stories, their opinions and their advice are all powerful. In the process I realized my skill limitations about internet data-search and retrieval. I also quickly realized that while I knew each of my subjects as warm acquaintances, I really did not know them and surely did not ever imagine the depth of their maturity nor the strength of their characters. I was taken aback several times by their observations of our society, culture and politics.

Most of all I was stunned by the complexity and myopia of our current immigration system. I have spent 50 years in “public service,” about half of it involved in state, local and some federal relations. I know that all our rules, regulations and laws are episodically made and not holistically crafted. They are added annually, layer-upon-layer, to “the books” to adjust, fill and fix a perceived need … all through the political process, each additive action presumably based on good intent.  So, what we have is a difficult to administer, complex morass.

I hope the series prompts a realization that we must … for our own benefit and our nation’s progress … identify, recruit, retain and support foreign-born professionals to become citizens, invest their time, talent and treasure in our society and economy and we need to start now.

Maybe with a program sponsored by The Press Club of Southwest Florida?

In Your Words is open to any member of the Press Club of Southwest Florida. If you are interested in writing for In Your Words contact Penny Fisher at

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