12 Outstanding Immigrants Who Made it in American Politics

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America is the land of opportunity in a great many fields. Immigrants have excelled in the arts, in science, and in business. However, nationalism and patriotism erect some barriers to their success in politics. There was a huge kerfuffle earlier this year over whether Senator Ted Cruz, born in Canada, counted as a “natural born citizen.” That matters because the Constitution states that only natural born citizens can be president. However, the presidency is unique – naturalized citizens can serve in any other office.

Here are 12 who prove the point that even foreign birth does not prevent a new American from rising in politics:

Alexander Hamilton-Secretary of the Treasury Under George Washington

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To all general purposes we have uniformly been one people, each individual citizen everywhere enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection.”-Alexander Hamilton

Born on the island of Nevis, either in 1755 or 1757 (no one is sure) the result of an adulterous affair. He had his first job at 11, “Working as a clerk in an accounting firm in St. Croix, the bright and ambitious young lad quickly impressed his employer. Hamilton’s boss, businessman Nicolas Cruger, pooled his resources with a minister named Hugh Knox to send Hamilton to America for an education.”

“In 1773, when he was around 16 years old, Hamilton arrived in New York, where he enrolled in King’s College (later renamed Columbia University).”

When the War of Independence came, Hamilton became an aide to George Washington. When Washington was elected the first president under the Constitution, he appointed the former accountant as Secretary of the Treasury. “At the time, the nation was facing great foreign and domestic debt due to expenses incurred during the American Revolution.” The foundations of the American financial system were built by him at Treasury.

He was killed by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel, who believed Hamilton had wrecked Burr’s political career.

Today, the hottest ticket on Broadway is a musical about his life.

Notable Achievements – Hamilton was instrumental in establishing the Bank of North America, in doing so, the United States paid back its war debts and established a near perfect credit rating. 

As a co-author of the “Federalist Papers” Hamilton is credited with ensuring the Constitution was ratified

Hamilton founded the oldest continuously published daily U.S. newspaper — the New York Post, which he began in 1801.

James McHenry-Member of George Washington’s Cabinet

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Interest, gratitude, inclination, every thing that influences a sensible heart are united to render America dear to me” – James McHenry, on America

Hamilton wasn’t the only foreign-born member of George Washington’s cabinet. McHenry, born in 1753 in County Antrim, Ireland, was another. In 1771, he moved to Philadelphia, “The following year, the rest of his family came to the colonies, and his brother and father established an import business at Baltimore. During that year, James continued schooling at Newark Academy in Delaware and then studied medicine for 2 years under the well-known Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia.” That medical training put him in the Continental Army as a surgeon, and at Valley Forge, PA, he became an aide to Washington.

“He entered the Maryland Senate (1781-86). During part of this period, he served concurrently in the Continental Congress (1783-86) From 1789 to 1791, McHenry sat in the state assembly and in the years 1791-96 again in the senate.”

Washington appointed him Secretary of War and he served into the Adams administration. Fort McHenry in Baltimore was named after him. During the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner about the shelling of that fort – which the British failed to take.

Notable Achievements: As Secretary of War McHenry is credited with reorganizing the United States army as well as establishing the US Navy 

Robert F. Wagner I-US Senator and a New Dealer

MNY321170Image Source: Museum of the City of New York

I feel a great love for New York, and I’m grateful to this city for the opportunity it gave me..to come up as a little immigrant boy to become a United States Senator.”- Robert Wagner

He was born in 1877 in Nastätten, in the Province of Hesse-Nassau, which was part of the Kingdom of Prussia in the German Empire (now it’s called Rhein-Lahn-Kreis in the lander of Rhineland-Palatinate in the Federal Republic of Germany). His family moved to New York in 1885, settling in Yorkville (the German neighborhood that has since more or less vanished). Dad worked as a janitor and saw his son graduate from what is now City College.

Wagner later graduated from New York Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1900. For 20 years, he served with distinction in the New York State Legislature, and with Al Smith (who would be the first Catholic nominated for the presidency in 1928) investigated the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

In 1926, he was elected to the US Senate, where he served until his resignation due to ill health in 1949. He was one of FDR’s New Deal leaders in Congress and he sponsored the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the Social Security Act of 1935, and the Public Housing Act of 1937.

His son, Robert F. Wagner, Jr. was mayor of New York from 1954 through 1965.

Notable Achievements: Sponsored three major laws: the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the Social Security Act of 1935, and the Public Housing Act of 1937

Takuji Yamashita-Phosthumous Member of the Washington Supreme Court

YamashitaImage Source: History Link

The proposition that all applicants for admission to the bar must be citizens of the United States becomes absurd..in the most enlightened and liberty-loving nation of them all, one whose government and institutions are founded on the fundamental principles of freedom and equality”- Takuji Yamashita

Takuji Yamashita, never actually made it into politics in the United States, we cheated a little, an honorable man who stood up for civil rights and liberties, rights that we as a country, promised, but so often never followed through on. 

Civil rights demands in the US are often quite literally seen in black and white; we Americans tend to see everything through the prism of race. From Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the leaders of the civil rights struggle that we learn in history class and in the media are all African-Americans. A few might know Cesar Chavez (a finer man than most) and his fight for the rights of Latinos. Almost none have heard of Yamashita, and that is a shame.

Yamashita was born in Japan in the 1870s and moved to Washington State in the 1890s. He entered the University of Washington’s law school and graduated in its second ever class in 1902. He was admitted to the bar in 2001. No, that isn’t a typo. It’s a national disgrace.

In 1902, fresh out of law school and ready to launch his legal career, he appealed to the state Supreme Court and attorney general after they blocked his admission to the Bar based on their interpretation of U.S. law as precluding Asians from becoming citizens. Citizenship was a requirement in that era for practicing law.

Rather than accepting unequal treatment, Yamashita argued in Washington state’s highest court that the denial of his citizenship was an affront to the values of “the most enlightened and liberty-loving nation of them all.” The state’s attorneys responded by mocking Yamashita’s ‘worn out Star Spangled Banner orations.’ The state won the case.”

So, he became a businessman and strawberry farmer instead of a lawyer. Except, there was a problem with farming. “In 1922, Yamashita challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court the state’s Alien Land Law, which barred ‘ineligible aliens’ — again, in effect, Asians — from owning land. The U.S. ruling was the same as the Olympia decision of 1902: it was up to Congress to decide if Asians were eligible for naturalization.”

The barriers to Asians participating fully in American life were not quite as bad as those faced by ex-slaves and their descendants, but they were hardly considered the equals of white Americans. “Not until 1952 could Japanese immigrants become U.S. citizens, not until 1965 did Congress put Asian immigrants on par with Europeans, not until 1966 did Washington voters (on the fourth try) repeal the Alien Land Law, and not until 1973 did the U.S. Supreme Court finally grant aliens the right to practice law in all states.”

After being incarcerated in World War II relocation camps, Yamashita returned to Japan in the last two years of his life. He died there in 1959 at the age of 84.”

I often wonder about the incredible talent that gets thrown away because of racist and sexist thinking. Yamashita could have been a Supreme Court Justice, a US Senator or Congressman. He could have been a partner in a law firm. He might have led a movement for Asian civil rights that might have stopped the internment of Japanese-Americans – one of the worst things ever done to our fellow Americans. There’s nothing wrong with strawberry farming, but if that is what you are going to do, it should be your first choice – not a last resort.

Notable Achievements: The First Japanese immigrant who obtained a degree in the University of Washington Law School. Yamashita challenged national prejudices and argued against the injustices perpetrated against Asian immigrants in “the most enlightened and liberty-loving nation of them all.”

Felix Frankfurter-Former Associate Justice of The US Supreme Court

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In a democratic society like ours, relief must come through an aroused popular conscience that sears the conscience of the people’s representatives.”- Felix Frankfurter

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1882, Frankfurter came to America in his teens with his family. He grew up poor on New York City’s Lower East Side with five siblings. His father did his best to support the family, working as a merchant. Frankfurter came from a learned and religious family with many members who were rabbis over the generations, and he proved to be quite bright in his own right early on. Despite knowing no English in the beginning, Frankfurter managed to excel in his studies in public school.

Frankfurter graduated from the City College of New York in 1902 and went on to attend Harvard Law School, completing his degree in 1906. One of his first jobs as a lawyer was at the office of Henry L. Stimson, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District. Frankfurter served as an assistant to Stimson, whom he greatly admired.

This tie to Stimson would take him far. President Taft, on Stimson’s recommendation, appointed him to the Department of War’s Bureau of Insular Affairs. He then taught constitutional law at Harvard for four years, and when World War I broke out, he worked for “Secretary of War Newton Baker as an assistant. He also became chairman of the War Labor Policies Board, overseeing labor disputes across the nation.”

After the war, he returned to Harvard, where he became one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1939, FDR picked him as the third Jew to serve on the US Supreme Court. In 1954,  Frankfurter supported the groundbreaking decision in Brown v. Board of Education that made school segregation illegal.

Notable Achievements: As a Supreme Court Justice, Frankfurter most notable case was Brown Vs Board, ending segregation in schools, 

John Kenneth Galbraith-A Reputed Economist and Former American Ambassador

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Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; What causes people to resist so obvious a good?”-John Kenneth Galbraith

Born in Canada in 1908, Galbraith studied at Harvard where he began to teach economics while still in his 20s. “In 1938 he left to work in New Deal Washington, eventually rising to become FDR’s “price czar” during the war. Following his years as a writer at Fortune, where he did much to introduce the work of John Maynard Keynes to a wide audience, he returned to Harvard in 1949 and began writing the books that would make him famous.”

These books include The Great Crash: 1929, The Affluent Society, and The New Industrial State which talked about things like the destructiveness of corporate greed, the dangers of excessive military spending and “private wealth and public squalor.” His books are exceedingly readable despite being about economics.

He was a friend of President Kennedy’s and he served as America’s Ambassador to India during the Kennedy administration.

Notable AchievementsHis books while controversial, asked important questions about the virtue of consumerism, emphasising that major corporations usurped the free market by utilizing their massive market power to influence consumers negatively through advertising. 

Editor’s note: While the concept of market power through advertising has been largely left behind across much of the “western world” today the concept of big corporations influencing the free market through political campaign financing is prominent and on the rise.

Thomas Lantos-Former Member of the House of Representatives

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It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust could have received an education, raised a family and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a member of Congress. I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country.”- Tom Lantos

Born to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary, in 1928, Lantos served 14 terms in the House of Representatives as a congressman from California. He was the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in Congress.

“Lantos was 16 when Nazi Germany occupied the Hungarian capital in March 1944. He was sent to a labor camp in Szob, a small village about 40 miles north of Budapest. He and his fellow inmates were forced to maintain a key bridge on the Budapest-Vienna rail line. Lantos escaped, was captured and beaten, escaped a second time and returned to Budapest. He found refuge with an aunt, who lived in a safe house operated by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who used his official status and visa-issuing powers to save thousands of Hungarian Jews (in 1981, Lantos sponsored a bill making Wallenberg an Honorary Citizen of the U.S.).”

After the war, he attended the University of Budapest. “After writing an essay on the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he was awarded a Hillel Foundation scholarship to study in the United States. He arrived in New York City in August 1947 with only a prized Hungarian salami which was promptly confiscated by U.S. customs officials. He earned his B.A. in 1949 and M.A. in 1950 in economics from the University of Washington in Seattle. He received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, three years later.”

After a time as a TV commentator, professor and advisor to several US Senators, he got himself elected to Congress. In many ways, he was the conscience of the Congress. “This is about as believable as Elvis being seen in a K-Mart,” was his retort to a witness testifying in 1989 about the Reagan-era scandals at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In November 2007, he shocked top executives of Yahoo Inc. at a hearing on the company’s involvement in the jailing of a Chinese journalist by declaring, “Morally, you are pygmies.”

Notable Achievements: Most well known for his human rights campaigning, focused on Tibet, Darfur, Morocco and Wester Saharah, as well as his native Hungary. In 2008, Lantos was posthumously awarded Lantos the Medal of Freedom

Zbigniew Brzezinski-National Security Adviser

Sicherheitskonferenz am 01.02.2014 in München. Foto: Tobias KleinschmidtImage Source: Wikiwand

I don’t feel I was “born American,” but my homeland was denied to me after the end of World War II and I craved something I could identify with.”- Zbigniew Brzezinski

Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1928. His family were part of the Polish nobility, entitled to the Traby coat of arms. His father Tadeusz was a diplomat. Dad was posted to Germany from 1931-35, so Zbigniew got to witness the rise of the Nazis during his early teens. After that, he went to the Soviet Union from 1936-38, during Stalin’s purges. Fortune took the family to Canada in 1938, and when war broke out. He finished high school in Montreal, got a BA and MA from McGill University, and went to Harvard to get his doctorate. He became a US citizen in 1958.

He was a member of the Policy Planning Council of the Department of State from 1966 to 1968; chairman of the Humphrey Foreign Policy Task Force in the 1968 presidential campaign; director of the Trilateral Commission from 1973 to 1976; and principal foreign policy adviser to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential campaign. From 1977 to 1981, Dr. Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. In 1981, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role in the normalization of U.S.-China relations and for his contributions to the human rights and national security policies of the United States.

In 1988, he was cochairman of the Bush National Security Advisory Task Force, and in 2004, he was co-chairman of a Council on Foreign Relations task force that issued the report Iran: Time for a New Approach.

Notable Achievements: Opening up relations with China, and in turn ending relations with the anti-communist Taiwan. Brzezinski is also credited with aggressively pushing for the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, Brzezinski helped initiate the arming of the Afghani Mujaheddin against Soviet occupation, a move that infamously resulted in the rise of Osama Bin Ladin. 

For all of his controversy, Brezinski would encourage diplomacy even with some of the US’ most feared adversaries. He has consistently urged a U.S. leadership role in the world, based on established alliances, and warned against unilateralist policies that would destroy U.S. global credibility and precipitate U.S. global isolation.

Madeleine Albright- Former Secretary of State

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I think that mostly we have to remember that we are a country of immigrants and therefore they clearly have worked. And I’m very troubled by some of the discussion now. “- Madeleine Albright

Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937, her family fled Czechoslovakia for England shortly after the German invasion. While raised Catholic, her parents had converted from Judaism. She would learn years later that three of her four grandparents were killed in the Nazi concentration camps.

Following the war, the family returned briefly to Prague but settled in Denver, Colorado in 1949. Her father Joseph Korbel become a professor at the University of Denver (where many years later he had a student named Condoleeza Rice, who would be Secretary of State just like his daughter). Marie, known as Madeleine, attended Wellesley College, and then married publishing heir Joseph Albright.

Madeleine began studying Russian and international relations while also raising the couple’s three daughters, twins Alice and Anne (born in 1961) and Katherine (born 1967). Madeleine completed her education at Columbia University, earning a certificate in Russian studies in 1968 and her MA and PhD in public law and government by 1976.

While still a student, in 1972 Albright first entered the political arena as a legislative assistant to Democratic senator Edmund Muskie. Four years later, she was hired by national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (one of her former professors at Columbia), to work for the National Security Council during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

In 1992 president-elect Bill Clinton tapped Albright to handle the United States’ relationship with the United Nations. She officially assumed the role of U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations in January 1993 and quickly distinguished herself as a force to be reckoned with. During her four years in the post, she became an advocate for “assertive multilateralism,” telling The New Republic, in an interview that “U.S. leadership in world politics and in multilateral organizations is a fundamental tenet of the Clinton Administration.”

Among other endeavors, Albright lobbied for the United States to expand its military involvement in the Balkans during its prolonged conflicts in the 1990s—a move over which she would publicly clash with Colin Powell—and also pushed for U.S. intervention in the Haitian coup of 1994.

In December 1996, Clinton once again looked to Albright for her expertise in foreign policy, nominating her for secretary of state. When she was sworn in to the position the following January, she became the 64th secretary of state and the first woman to ever hold that position. In her new role, Albright quickly lived up to her reputation as a strong-willed and outspoken problem-solver, engaging with a broad range of issues.

Notable Achievements: During her tenure, Albright advocated for increased human rights and democracy throughout the world and fought to halt the spread of nuclear weapons from former Soviet countries to rogue nations such as North Korea. A champion of NATO, Albright also sought to expand the organization’s membership and in 1999 pushed for its direct military intervention during the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo.

As a diplomat, she was closely involved in work to normalize U.S. relations with countries such as China and Vietnam. In 1997, Albright was a major player in a peace mission to the Middle East, during which she brokered negotiations between Israel and various Arab nations. In October 2000, Albright made history again when she became the first American secretary of state to travel to North Korea.

Henry Kissinger- Secretary of State During the Cold War

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I could never forget what an inspiration America had been to the victims of persecution, to my family, and to me during cruel and degrading years. I always remembered the thrill when I first walked the streets of New York City. Seeing a group of boys, I began to cross to the other side to avoid being beaten up. And then I remembered where I was”- Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger on May 27, 1923, in Fürth, a city in the Bavaria region of Germany.  Kissinger was a shy, introverted and bookish child. “He withdrew,” his mother remembered. “Sometimes he wasn’t outgoing enough, because he was lost in his books.” Kissinger excelled at the local Jewish school and dreamed of attending the Gymnasium, a prestigious state-run high school. However, by the time he was old enough to apply, the school had stopped accepting Jews. Sensing the impending tragedy of the Holocaust, his family decided to flee Germany for United States in 1938, when Kissinger was 15 years old.

On August 20, 1938, the Kissingers set sail for New York City by way of London. His family was extremely poor upon arrival in the United States, and Kissinger immediately went to work in a shaving brush factory to supplement his family’s income. At the same time, Kissinger enrolled at New York’s George Washington High School, where he learned English with remarkable speed and excelled in all of his classes. One of his teachers later recalled of Kissinger, “He was the most serious and mature of the German refugee students, and I think those students were more serious than our own.” Kissinger graduated from high school in 1940 and continued on to the City College of New York, where he studied to become an accountant.

In 1943, Kissinger became a naturalized American citizen and, soon after, he was drafted into the army to fight in World War II. Thus, just five years after he left, Kissinger found himself back in his homeland of Germany, fighting the very Nazi regime from which he had once fled.

In 1947, upon his return to the United States, he was admitted to Harvard University to complete his undergraduate coursework. After receiving his doctorate in 1954, Kissinger accepted an offer to stay at Harvard as a member of the faculty in the Department of Government. From 1961-68, in addition to teaching at Harvard, he served as a special advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on matters of foreign policy. Then in 1969, Kissinger finally left Harvard when incoming President Richard Nixon appointed him to serve as his National Security Advisor. As National Security Advisor from 1969-75, and then as Secretary of State from 1973-77, Kissinger would prove one of the most dominant, influential and controversial statesmen in American history.

The great foreign policy trial of Kissinger’s career was the Vietnam War. By the time Kissinger became National Security Advisor in 1969, the Vietnam War had become enormously costly, deadly and unpopular. Seeking to achieve “peace with honor,” Kissinger combined diplomatic initiatives and troop withdrawals with devastating bombing campaigns on North Vietnam designed to improve the American bargaining position and maintain American credibility with its international allies and enemies.

Notable Achievements: On January 27, 1973, Kissinger and his North Vietnamese negotiating partner Le Duc Tho finally signed a ceasefire agreement to end direct American involvement in the conflict. Both men were honored with the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, although Duc declined, leaving Kissinger the sole recipient of the award.

Nevertheless, Kissinger’s handling of the Vietnam War was highly controversial. His “peace with honor” strategy prolonged the war for four years, from 1969-73, during which 22,000 American troops and countless Vietnamese died. Furthermore, he initiated a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia that ravaged the country and helped the genocidal Khmer Rouge take power there.

Arnold Schwarzennegger-Governor of California

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger points to a reporter while taking questions during a news conference at Cal Expo in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005. Standing in front of a mock-up of the state Capitol, Schwarzenegger called on lawmakers to approve a constitutional amendment that automatically cuts state spending across the board if spending execeeds state revenues. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)Image Source: OC Register

As you know, I’m an immigrant. I came over here as an immigrant, and what gave me the opportunities, what made me to be here today, is the open arms of Americans. I have been received. I have been adopted by America”- Arnold Schwarzenegger

Born in Thal, Austria in 1947, he made his name in bodybuilding, and emigrated to America in 1968 and went on to win five Mr. Universe titles and seven Mr. Olympia titles before retiring to dedicate himself to acting. Later, he would go on to earn a college degree from the University of Wisconsin and proudly became a U.S. citizen.

In 1984, Schwarzenegger blew up the screen and catapulted himself into cinema history as the title character in Jim Cameron’s sci-fi thriller, Terminator.

Notable Achievements: He gratefully served the people of California as the state’s 38th governor from 2003 to 2010. First elected in California’s historic recall election, Governor Schwarzenegger ushered in an era of innovative leadership and extraordinary public service.”

Tammy Duckworthp – An Iraq War Veteran and the First Asian American Congresswoman for New York

Tammy_Duckworth_wheelchairImage Source: Wikimedia

My perspective on immigration is based on my family’s story: my father’s family has served the United States since the American Revolution, while my mother is an immigrant who became a citizen in her fifties. I know firsthand how immigrants’ hard work and love of country have made us the strong, diverse nation we are today.”- Tammy Duckworth

Congresswoman Duckworth was born in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968. Dad (Franklin) was US Marine veteran, and Mom (Lamai) was of Chinese ancestry.

Since Franklin did refugee work for the UN, she kicked around southeast Asia as a kid. In her teens, the family moved to Hawaii. She got a BA from the University of Hawaii, and her MA in international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC. There she also joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps, becoming a commissioned officer in the US Army Reserve in 1992. In 2004, while studying for her PhD at Northern Illinois University, she was deployed to Iraq.

In Iraq, Duckworth flew Operation Iraqi Freedom combat missions until her helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in the autumn of 2004. The explosion took both of Duckworth’s legs and robbed her of full function in her right arm. Still believing in the worthiness of her mission amid questions of whether she felt her sacrifice was for naught, Duckworth responded, “I was hurt in service for my country. I was proud to go. It was my duty as a soldier to go. And I would go tomorrow.”

Following her recovery, Duckworth ran for Congress in 2006. After a narrow loss, she became Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. She worked to create a tax credit for employers who hired Veterans, established a first-in-the-nation 24/7 Veterans crisis hotline, and developed innovative programs to improve Veterans’ access to housing and health care.

Notable Achievements: In 2009, President Obama appointed Duckworth to be Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs. At VA, Duckworth led an initiative to end Veterans homelessness. She created the Office of Online Communications to improve the VA’s accessibility, especially among young Veterans, and also worked to address the unique challenges that Native American and female Veterans face.

She was elected to Congress from the 8th Congressional District in Illinois in 2012.


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