Gonell and his mother arrived at JFK International Airport in New York from their Caribbean homeland in 1992. He swore oaths to protect and defend the Constitution when he signed up for the Army, became a U.S. citizen and joined the Capitol Police. The 43-year-old proved six months ago that he made these promises without reservation.
The sergeant was the first of four front-line law enforcement officers to appear Tuesday during the opening hearing of the House select committee to investigate the events of Jan. 6. His testimony felt like an antidote to xenophobia, Narcan for nativism. Anyone who fears the newest wave of immigrants would be reassured — even inspired — just by watching Gonell’s testimony.
As Americans by choice, many immigrants have a deeper sense of duty than the native-born. Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville so sagely observed our national character, outsiders and newcomers have often seen America’s strengths and weaknesses with the greatest clarity.
Three key witnesses during Trump’s first impeachment were immigrants. Marie Yovanovitch was born in Canada to parents who fled the Soviet Union. Alexander Vindman’s father brought him and his twin brother to Brooklyn from Ukraine, which was then behind the Iron Curtain. Fiona Hill is a coal miner’s daughter who grew up in northern England and caught a lucky break that put her on a path to Harvard.
All three have discussed how these backgrounds shaped their gratitude for the United States, allowing them to clearly see how un-American it was for Trump to shake down the Ukrainian government to advance his personal interests. They testified before Congress when other material witnesses declined to do so.
On Tuesday, Gonell joined their impressive ranks. He described experiencing hand-to-hand combat like “something from a medieval battle,” scarier than any of the 545 days he served in Iraq. The invaders, chanting “Trump sent us,” used hammers, knives, batons and shields. Gonell was punched, pushed, kicked, shoved and bear-sprayed.
The immigrant policeman was willing to die to defend the West Terrace of the Capitol. At one point that afternoon, as rioters crushed him, he thought he would. “I could feel myself losing oxygen and recall thinking to myself, ‘This is how I’m going to die,’ ” Gonell testified.
With the presidential electors finally certified, and the citadel of our democracy secured, Gonell drove home around 4 a.m. on Jan. 7 to his wife, 9-year-old son and dog. His wife tried to hug him, but he kept her away because his uniform was covered in chemicals. Showering reactivated those chemicals, burning his skin. She told him not to go back to work because he was injured, but he was en route to the Capitol by 8 a.m. He worked 15 consecutive days, through the inauguration, disregarding a doctor’s pleas.
“My sense of duty for the country, for the Constitution, at that time was bigger than even my love for my wife and my son,” he said.
Gonell only stopped working when his right foot swelled so much that it wouldn’t fit in his shoe and his limp became so painful he could hardly stand. Surgeons fused fractured bones in his foot. He recently learned he’ll need surgery on his left shoulder. He also suffered injuries to both hands and his left calf. Now, he’s back on duty, but to his chagrin, deskbound until he can complete more physical therapy.
Immigrants have always been a key ingredient in America’s secret sauce, even as whether to welcome them has remained a persistent dividing line in our politics. Gonell joins a group of distinguished Dominican natives who have helped enrich American life after becoming citizens, from the late designer Oscar de la Renta to author Junot Díaz and baseball player David Ortiz.
Relatives from the Dominican Republic started frantically calling and texting Gonell around 2 p.m. on Jan. 6 because they saw the Capitol turmoil on television. “It was not until around 4:26 p.m., after giving CPR to one of the rioters who breached the Capitol in an effort to save her life, that I finally had a chance to let my own family know that I was alive,” he recounted.
Gonell called what happened that day an attempted coup. “And if it had been in another country, the U.S. would have sent help,” he said.
What went without saying is that America cannot count on other countries to send help when our own democracy is in peril. We’re going to have to figure this one out on our own.