First lady Melania Trump was born in 1970 in Slovenia, then part of communist Yugoslavia. Her name then was Melanija Knavs, Germanized to Melania Knauss. In 1996, she moved to New York City and 10 years later, she became a U.S. citizen.
It would be preposterous to presume that the first lady would be more loyal to Slovenia than America because of where she was born. So why would anyone suggest that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top White House Ukraine expert who was born in Ukraine and left at age 3, is anything but loyal to America?
Yet that is precisely what conservative hard-liners have done this week. They have questioned the integrity of Vindman, an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient whose crime, as far as I can tell, is to have testified this week in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. Vindman has first-hand knowledge of Trump’s controversial phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which the president pressured Zelensky to investigate 2020 political rival Joe Biden and his son when the two leaders spoke of withheld U.S. military aid.
Many Americans born in other countries serve our nation in uniform with pride and distinction and have done so for decades, indeed centuries. Our nation has relied on good men and women – born here or elsewhere – to help defend the United States. Still, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, foreign-born people comprised half of all military recruits going back to 1840, and 2 percent of the 1.5 million service members in the Union Army during the Civil War.
Data from the Department of Defense shows that more than 65,000 immigrants (non-U.S. citizens and naturalized citizens) were serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces in 2008. Today, according to the Migration Policy Institute, there are more than 51,000 foreign-born U.S. veterans. Moreover, 1.5 million veterans have at least one parent who is in an immigrant, according to the data. Given that we have an all-volunteer force, noncitizens are able to sign up to serve. U.S. service members can then apply for citizenship and obtain it if they show good moral character, knowledge of the English language, understanding of U.S. civics, and a willingness to take an oath of allegiance to the United States.
There’s no reason to believe that Vindman has done anything improper, or that the speculation against his patriotism is anything other than attacks by Trump sycophants for whom facts are often elusive. We all have to be ready to defend our nation and its public servants. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman served in Iraq, and continues to serve his adopted country. First lady Melania Trump serves in Washington.
To both I say: Thank you for your service.
Tara D. Sonenshine, a former U.S. undersecretary of state in the Obama administration, advises students at The George Washington University.