Bao Nguyen is the mayor of Garden Grove, Calif. and is running for U.S. Congress.

When my mom left her home, her family, and her friends in 1980, she was eight months pregnant with me. She, like many escapees at the time, had to make the impossible decision to leave two of her daughters behind with family. She hoped that they would one day make it over as well, but if she were to have any chance at escaping, she knew she would have to do it with only part of the family.

She boarded an overcrowded boat with dozens of other families, and the boat was set adrift into the open ocean. After three separate pirate assaults and weeks of churning aimlessly in the South China Sea, the boat made it to the shore of Thailand. But when the boat people spotted land, they noticed that the locals waiting ashore had weapons in their hands. It was at that moment that a group of Buddhist monks saw what was happening and took action. They waded out from the shore, formed a human chain around the boat, and brought us in to sleep on their temple floor. The next day, my mom was brought to a UN refugee camp, where I was later born.

I am lucky for a number of reasons. I was born to incredibly brave parents who successfully escaped Vietnam. I was naturalized as a United States citizen when I was 12 because my parents had the foresight to understand that if they wanted me to have all the benefits and freedoms of living in the United States, we all needed to become citizens. I became the mayor of the city in which I grew up, and now I am running for Congress to represent the hardworking people of Orange County in Washington, D.C.

My family and I benefitted immensely from my parents’ decision to become American citizens. But the benefit I value most is the right to vote.

My parents came from a country where their vote was worthless. But in America, a vote has the power to change things. Americans can vote on everything from the president all the way down to the local school board. I served on Garden Grove’s school board, and then I won my mayor’s race by just 15 votes. The narrow win only underscores how important every single vote was.

The reason I choose to serve in public office is because I want to honor my parents’ sacrifice. They fled a corrupt and oppressive government and became U.S. citizens so that I could live a freer, better life. Being able to hold government officials accountable is something a lot of people take for granted, but I never will.

That’s why I’m fighting to make sure this country doesn’t turn into an oligarchy and to protect individual and civil liberties, so that all families can live freely and without fear of the government. I do all of that because I’m an American citizen and that’s my responsibility to my country, and to my parents.

This op-ed is part of a project by New America Media in collaboration with the national, nonpartisan network New Americans Campaign. To learn more about becoming a U.S. citizen, go to www.newamericanscampaign.org.

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