My Refugee Family

I am a refugee descendent. And not too far removed, either. My biological father and nearly all his family escaped Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975. In a rickety old fishing boat, they somehow managed to arrive in Hawaii. From there, U.S. ships ferried them to a camp in California. My dad and uncle were sponsored by a couple in Washington through their church. Gradually, as they got their feet under them, the rest of the family was able to follow.

Coming to the United States was a difficult and humbling process. In South Vietnam, my dad had been a captain in the army, my grandfather ran transportation for the city of Saigon, and my uncle (who did not escape and was placed in a reeducation camp) was the Minister of Economics. All three were in danger of being executed. Two of my aunts were pregnant on the trip over, and my grandmother had what she later learned was uterine cancer.

My family learned English. They enrolled their children in schools. They took jobs wherever they could. My diplomat’s wife auntie, who had a chef, maid, and nanny for each of her three children in Vietnam, went to work in a fish cannery in Alaska. They lived communally until each family could find and afford their own place. They are the very essence of the term “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” That aunt I mentioned? She put all her kids through college. For me, my family truly embodies the American Dream.

That’s why President Donald Trump’s executive order banning refugees last Friday upset me so much. The order prevents refugees from entering the country for 120 days, bans Syrian refugees indefinitely, and places a hold on visas already granted to people from seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen). It also stipulates that Christian refugees receive priority. The whole thing is, in my opinion, unconscionable. It’s not who we are as a nation. We are the country of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” When we have welcomed those seeking freedom to our shores, we have benefitted. When we turned away Jews fleeing the Nazis in WWII, it led to their deaths.

Ostensibly, the order is to protect U.S. citizens from terrorist attacks. I don’t feel any safer after a week. I know the screening process for entry into the United States is already extensive and thorough. I agree with the experts who say it won’t help protect us because people from the banned countries aren’t the ones who have carried out terrorist attacks. I think this order is just about as effective as taking your shoes off at TSA. It’s an illusion of safety. As the wife of a deployed soldier, I worry about the impact this will have on the counterterrorism effort. Frankly, I think it gives terrorist groups more fodder and may aid in their recruitment efforts.

But it’s not just bad on paper; it’s terrible in practice. Initially, the ban applied to people with valid visas and green cards (the latter has since been rectified). Implementation of the measures has wreaked utter havoc on major airports across the country. Refugees, travelers with visas, and American citizens alike found themselves detained, questioned, barred from entering, and even sent back. When a new rule leads to a breastfed infant being denied access to her mother and a Harvard infectious disease researcher being denied entry, “poorly executed” doesn’t even begin to describe it.  

It’s time to take action. Let’s channel the fervor of the hundreds of volunteer immigration lawyers who set up shop at airports to offer free legal help for those affected by the order. What can you do?

·      Share your support for refugees and immigrants on social media.

·      Donate to the ACLU.

·      Attend a rally or march.

·      Become a refugee advocate.

·      Patronize businesses who support refugees (e.g. Starbucks, Lyft).

·      Volunteer to tutor refugee students learning English.

We are a nation of refugees and immigrants. I look at my relatives, and I see successful, hard-working, family-oriented, contributing citizens. I wonder what this country might have missed out on if we’d turned away the Vietnamese 41 years ago. I certainly wouldn’t be here. I am deeply indebted to my country, and it is with a grateful heart that I plead to the “better angels of our nature.” Let’s make sure those fleeing war, poverty, and persecution get the same chance my family did: a chance at the American dream.