How my dad helped make America great

The author with her parents at her graduation from Northwestern University in 1989.

Story highlights

  • Patti Solis Doyle says her dad was one of millions of immigrants who made America great
  • Doyle: Donald Trump's immigration policy is wrong on many levels

Patti Solis Doyle, a CNN political commentator, served in the White House as a senior adviser to then-first lady Hillary Clinton, was chief of staff on Clinton's 2000 and 2006 Senate campaigns, and was Clinton's presidential campaign manager in 2007 and early 2008. Watch Doyle in the 4 p.m. ET hour Thursday on "The Lead With Jake Tapper" on CNN. She currently is president of Solis Strategies, a Washington-based consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)You all would have liked my father.

Pa worked in a furniture factory all day and drove a cab on weekends. A few nights a week, he worked as a janitor at the Catholic school near our apartment. Back then, the public schools in our South Side Chicago neighborhood were dangerous, and mopping floors became his way of paying tuition for me and my five brothers and sisters.
Patti Solis Doyle
When he did have an evening off, Pa had a ritual. He'd walk in the door, change into his slippers, eat a clove of garlic (good for the heart), drink a shot of tequila, bite into a lime, then sit down in his La-Z-Boy to watch the evening news. Before he could get comfortable, Pa would have to examine every bill that came in that day. We stacked them on the folding table next to his chair, and he paid them immediately.
    Santiago Solis (Pa) grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, the youngest of eight children -- and the only boy. His father died when Pa was just a baby, so he dropped out of school in third grade to support his mother and seven sisters. He started out shining shoes and took whatever jobs he could find. When the last of his sisters married and moved out on her own, Pa was free to think about marrying my mother and starting a family. After a seven-year engagement, they had four children. Life was hard. They were very poor, but they loved each other, and they loved their children.
    Pa didn't want his children to have to drop out of school like he did. So Pa traveled to Chicago twice (illegally) and was deported each time. When his work visa finally came through, he moved there for good.
    For Pa, Chicago became the place where he could build a life for his family, guarantee his children a good education and take them out of poverty. Like other immigrants who crossed the Atlantic, the Pacific or the Rio Grande to get here, Pa was hungry for opportunity, for family and for the peace of mind that a life of hard work should provide.
    Pa brought his work ethic with him to Chicago. It took him a little over a year to save enough money to send for his wife and his four kids. Ma got a job at an industrial laundry washing towels and sheets for the big hotels downtown.
    A few years later, they had two more children -- Santiago Jr. (Juny) and me. We were still pretty poor. All six kids took after-school jobs, and we gave our paychecks to Pa to help pay bills. But Pa made sure we all graduated from high school. When I became the first to get a college degree, Pa cried.
    Donald Trump may be right about Pa's impact on middle-class wages. It's possible the factory, the cab company and the school would have paid someone a bit more, if Pa hadn't been around. Combined, my parents never earned more than $18,000 in a year.
    But consider how they lived. Ma and Pa saved what they could, bought an apartment building and fixed it up. They swept their sidewalk daily and paid their taxes. In 1969,15 years after they immigrated to the United States, Ma and Pa became U.S. citizens. It was an honor they appreciated more than most people I know. Every Election Day, they woke up at 4 a.m. so that they could be the first in line to vote. Why? Because neither of them wanted to be late for work.
    Doyle's parents, circa 1996, with some of their grandchildren.
    When their kids moved away, Ma volunteered at the local senior center. Pa used his carpentry skills from the factory to build pews and an altar for the church. Yes, Pa snuck into America (twice), but, for the rest of his life, he was a law-and-order kind of guy -- never so much as a parking ticket.
    The six of us grew up and had kids of our own. Our extended family includes a firefighter, a bus driver, physical therapist, nurse, teacher, small business owners, accountants, office managers and three cops (one of whom is a Marine veteran who served two tours in Iraq and a tour in Afghanistan). Pa had to drop out of school when he was 8, but his grandchildren are going to college. They're starting businesses, selling software, writing copy at Chicago ad agencies and performing in some of Chicago's most famous theaters.
    I grew up to serve in the Clinton White House and make a little history as the first Hispanic woman to run a presidential campaign. My oldest brother, Danny, was a community organizer in Chicago (alongside a promising young organizer named Barack Obama). Danny now serves as one of Chicago's most powerful aldermen.
    During the years I worked for Hillary Clinton, she got to know Ma and Pa well. She met them on a rope line at a rally in 1992. Over the years, she invited them for visits at the White House and made sure to see them when she went home to Chicago. She even danced with Pa at my wedding. For Hillary, hard-working immigrants like Pa were inspiring -- a reminder of the real Americans who needed help from Washington. Talking with Pa reminded her of the millions like him. I'm glad they got to know each other well before he died in 1999 at the age of 75.
    I'll leave it to candidates such as Hillary and Jeb Bush to point out the gaps in Trump's immigration policy, like spending hundreds of billions of dollars on mass deportation, the likelihood of Mexico paying the cost for a wall along the border or the viability of actually changing the Constitution to end birthright citizenship.
    Trump's "birthright citizenship" agenda -- still undefined -- could cut closer to home, however. Juny and I were born in the United States before our parents became citizens. My four other siblings earned their citizenship years after arriving. What would Trump do with us? There is a cost to stripping me and my brothers and sisters of our citizenship -- a cost to us, to Chicago and to the country.
    Trump wants to "make America great again," and he believes that immigrants are weakening it. I disagree. America is great, and that has a lot to do with the fact it was built by people, like my father, who sacrificed to get here.
    Mr. Trump, for all of your harsh rhetoric, I think you would have liked Pa, too.
    I am not so sure, however, if Pa would have liked you.