Team USA (No Matter Where They Were Born)

By Heather Jelen 7-26-2012
U.S. Olympic runner Leo Manzano. Photo via
U.S. Olympic runner Leo Manzano. Photo via

When I was a sophomore at Bethel University, I was the top 1,500-meter runner on my track team. Then, my junior year, a transfer student came, and she was really fast. She quickly took my place as the fastest miler on the team, winning multiple national championships in the process.

I’ll admit to having felt a little bit frustrated because she came in from the outside and passed me up. But training with her is one of the key reasons I was ultimately able to finish sixth at the national meet, good enough to earn All-American honors.

She pushed me to become better. She gave me someone to chase. She brought more attention to our school and our team, resulting in more fast recruits. In short, she made me and our whole team better.

As the London Olympics begin this week, the United States counts many “transfers” — immigrants from all over the world who are now U.S. citizens — among its top athletes. Some people may feel threatened by these immigrants because they are potentially taking the place of others who were born here.

But I think our immigrants make us better, just like my transfer teammate made me better. They continually push us to do better, work harder and find new ways to improve.

Leo Manzano, who will represent the United States in the 1,500 meters, is among our immigrant athletes whose parents brought them to our country when they were young. Manzano’s father, Jesus, first came to America in search of work and a better life for him and his family. Eventually, his wife and children joined him in the United States — Leo arrived when he was 4.

Jesus gained legal residency under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, but it would take 10 years for the rest of the family to gain legal residency. Leo became a citizen in 2004 and represented the U.S. in the 2008 Olympics. This year, he won the Olympic Trials in the 1500 meters for another chance to represent the country that allowed him the opportunity to pursue his dream of running professionally.

Other athletes grew up in another country, including Bernard Lagat (running the 5000 meters at the Olympics), who previously represented his native Kenya before becoming a U.S. citizen. Lagat chose to become a naturalized U.S. citizen even though it meant missing out on the 2005 World Championships because of rules governing a change of nationality.

These are just two examples of the many immigrants (38, by my count, from 30 different countries) who will be proud to represent the United States when the Olympics start next week. And I will be proud to watch Manzano, Lagat and the rest of Team USA, no matter where they were born.

The United States continues to be a nation of immigrants, where we accept and embrace those willing to pledge allegiance to this great country — including immigrants who continually challenge, push and improve us.

Heather Jelen, a 2009 graduate of Bethel University, is a policy intern at the National Immigration Forum and a third-year law student at George Washington University. This post originally appeared on the National Immigration Forum.

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