"We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by lovingkindness -- make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it." The Buddha

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Refugees and Immigrants: A Vietnamese-American Political Perspective


Let me start by sharing with you two statistics.

First, for the entire month of October 2019, according to records from the US State Department, not a single refugee was physically admitted into the United States. You read that right. Not one! I did a double take when I first learned of it. But unfortunately I have confirmed it to be true. Despite refugee crises around the world, the US State Department pushed the refugee pause button in October. This is unprecedented given the nearly 30 years this statistic has been recorded and tracked by World Relief. It is no surprise to me that it happened during the Trump administration. Their hostility toward refugees and migrants is usually in full public display, from their inflammatory rhetoric to cruel policies, e.g., zero tolerance on family separation south of the US border which resulted in thousands of innocent migrant children being traumatized and abused. The administration's lawyer even callously argued before a court judge that legally it isn't a requirement to provide migrant kids soap and toothpaste. Of course real leaders don't make decisions based on whether they are legal but whether they are moral. As a father and child advocate, I firmly believe Trump is immoral. And I'm not alone. Christianity Today, evangelicalism's flagship magazine, wrote on Thursday that Trump should be removed as US President because of his "profound immorality."

Second, according to the Asian American Voter Survey (conducted by the nonpartisan civic engagement group APIA Vote and the University of California, Riverside research program AAPI Data), 64 percent of Vietnamese Americans support President Trump. This is the highest of any Asian-American group. In fact, Vietnamese Americans are almost twice as likely to vote Republican than as to vote Democratic (42 percent compared to 28 percent, respectively). Vietnamese Americans' affinity toward conservatism and the Republican party isn't a big secret. In general, especially for older Vietnamese Americans like me, we are staunch anti-communists. I am old, Vietnamese, and anti-communist. So I fit the bill. Virtually all of us escaped Vietnamese communism, risking our very lives and livelihoods to gain freedom. Any person or organization that is strongly opposed to communism is considered an ally to most Vietnamese Americans.

Yet as a Vietnamese American, I find it difficult if not impossible to reconcile fully the two stats above. We cannot be refugees and immigrants and support Trump at the same time. It isn't logically possible. I've recently had heated debates with my fellow Vietnamese Americans. Some claimed I'm betraying the effort to fight communism by not supporting Trump. I don't think so. I can support the fight against communism and still refuse to support an immoral person. They aren't mutually exclusive. There are other more qualified leaders we can employ, not just Trump. Besides, I'll be damned if I escaped communism and not needing to wear a red hat to only later be pressured into wearing another red hat. Regarding immigration, they have said, "But Cuong, President Trump likes immigrants. He just doesn't want illegal migrants. We Vietnamese are legal immigrants." I've heard that argument so often, I've become tired of educating people about it. But I'm not tired today. Let's talk about it further.

On January 11, 2018, President Trump said, "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here [specifically naming Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa as examples] ... we should have more people from Norway." From this comment and other evidence through the years, Trump surely isn't against immigration. After all, his wife Melania is an immigrant. Instead, he's against immigration for brown people. It's not a matter of legality but of racism. Hence, there is no such thing as "an illegal." It's a disparaging term that isn't only grammatically wrong (only an uneducated person would use it) but also doesn't reflect reality. The reality is laws aren't set in stone. Laws can and do change all the time. Even the US Constitution can be amended. What is legal is what our society and nation decide is legal, including the decision to make "illegals" officially legal.

For example, thanks to the humanity of US President Gerald Ford, he signed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act in 1975, which eventually allowed 200,000 refugees from South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to enter the United States under a special status, providing relocation and financial assistance at a cost of over $400 million. Would Trump sign such an act today? Not likely. Thus, Vietnamese Americans would have been rejected and deemed illegal from the start if Trump were in power in 1975. President Jimmy Carter and his administration continued to support Ford's act as Vietnamese boat people started to escape Vietnam in large numbers starting in 1978, culminating in the Refugee Act of 1980. With two Presidential administrations from two different political parties supporting them, Vietnamese Americans were lucky to have been given legal status to enter the United States during the 1970s.  However, some in the US Congress, mostly Republicans, opposed the acts, arguing that Vietnamese refugees "would never be able to assimilate to American culture and would detract from the value system already in place." We can all look back on these arguments and laugh. But incredibly, the same arguments are being made today by Trump and many members of the Republican party. Therefore, conservative Vietnamese Americans who blindly support Republicans and their xenophobic ideologies, would likely have voted against their ability to immigrate to America 45 years earlier! Personally, I don't do business with racists, much less vote for one.

By the way, current Democratic US Presidential candidate Joe Biden was against the aforementioned refugee act of 1975 but fortunately cosponsored its permanency in 1980.

I have encountered a good number of Americans who believe that refugees and immigrants are a drain on America. It tells me they haven't been educated and paying attention. If anything, it's the other way around. According to the Harvard Political Review, there is a widespread agreement among economists on the net benefits of migration for destination countries. The National Foundation for American Policy concluded that 44 out of 87 privately held companies worth more than $1 billion had at least one immigrant founder. These immigrant-founded companies each created an average of 760 jobs.

For me, the best proof is America itself. A formidable super power in almost every metric, the US is a result of the amalgamation of various immigrants and refugees throughout American history: English, Scots, Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, Latinos, Vietnamese, etc. Few people are as brave, motivated, determined, and hardworking as immigrants, especially refugees. If they weren't, they'd likely stayed back in the old country. America, as they say, is a "land of immigrants." The phrase is so ingrained in our American psyche it's become cliche. We have taken immigrants and the issue of immigration largely for granted. We have allowed demagogues to deceive us instead of spending the time and effort to educate ourselves. If we were intellectually curious, we'd see our long history of xenophobic behavior and policies that we can contemplate upon and learn from. For instance, the Immigration Act of 1924 stopped all immigrants from Asia. Also, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the 1880s opposed immigrants from Europe, even though most of its member leaders were sons of immigrants from Europe. We made the same immigration mistakes over and over again. And as discussed, we still make them to this day. America is known for thinking big, and I like that so much, but there is an awful lot of ignorant people who are embarrassingly petty, selfish, and narrow-minded. They are diametrically opposed to the can-do American attitude that has always made our nation great. Sadly, they have forgotten the heritage of their immigrant ancestry.

Sometimes I wonder whether being older tends to make us more conservative. But I don't think it's because we've become wiser or more mature, but rather, we have become more cynical, cranky, and close-minded. Close-minded because we think we have seen it all but in reality we haven't; the world changes in unpredictable ways at unprecedented speeds. Cranky because physically our bodies are falling apart before our very eyes. And cynical because we have experienced failures and other people disappointing us in our lives. So to more easily explain what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in the future, we have calcified our beliefs even for matters that demand flexibility, understanding, and compassion. Unfortunately, life isn't always nice and orderly. It is often messy, harsh, and unexpected. Because of our past and what we've been through, too many of us older people are unable to put ourselves in other people's shoes. If we did, we'd understand that things aren't as simple and straightforward as we think it is. For example, I was blessed to have my parents. If I had abusive parents or no parents at all, which is not uncommon, there is little chance I would be the same person or have the same success. Thus, telling other people that the reason they didn't succeed was because they were lazy or didn't work hard enough is, in my view, myopic and naive, not to mention uncaring. We had more assistance and deserve less credit than we tend to believe.

For my part politically, I have taken the more difficult path. I'm neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I'm an Independent. I vote for the individual candidate, not blindly go along with any particular political party. As the comedian George Carlin wisely said, "I do this real moron thing, and it's called thinking." The very first Presidential election I voted in was when I was in college. I wasn't interested in the young and popular Democratic candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore at the time. In my college campus, they were treated like rock stars. I love rock, but my first vote as an American was for Ross Perot, an old fast-talking business executive with a heavy Southern drawl, the antithesis of myself back then. But we both have something in common, and that's common sense. We were also both born in the South (in my case, South Vietnam!). We think different. We don't think petty and small. We think big and grand. We don't accept the status quo, because the status quo ain't good enough. So we don't (and can't) copy others. We do the right things the right way. On Tuesday, November 3, 1992, I voted for Ross Perot, an Independent. Over 18 percent of my fellow Americans thought the same.

Fortunately, new generations of young Vietnamese Americans are more progressive than their immigrant parents and grandparents. I suspect there will be a shift of a similar 18 percent in the future away from the Grand Old Party (GOP). Their recent cowardly support for Trump won't age well by the time he leaves office on January 20, 2021, and certainly not to future American voters and historians. The GOP might be old but it hasn't been grand for a very long time. ๐Ÿ’›

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"Irrigators channel waters; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters shape wood; the wise master themselves." The Buddha