Both my mother and father left Vietnam in April 1975, a time known to expatriates as “Black April,” the month Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. Their homeland had been torn asunder by years of bitter war. My mother, my aunts and uncle, and my grandmother escaped to the United States through a series of helicopter rescues orchestrated by the U.S. government. After being routed to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and San Jose, California, my mom and her family settled in Fresno, California where they found work as farmworkers, picking raspberries, bitter melons, onions, and a variety of other crops in Fresno, California. She was 16 years old.
My family was lucky. They had a sponsor and a support system already present in the United States and were also never separated from each other. My mom and her sisters were young and they eventually got the chance to enroll in school, learn English, and make better lives for themselves. It wasn’t always the easiest transition, and it certainly wasn’t easy working in the fields while going to school, but they knew that they had opportunities here in the United States that wouldn’t exist anywhere else.
It is a sobering reality that the United States my mother first experienced, a land ripe with the promise of opportunity for herself and her family, is so drastically changed from the United States we see today in terms of immigration policy. In just the last four years, the federal government has spent more than $73 billion on immigration enforcement alone. The border between the U.S. and Mexico is now separated by 651 miles of fencing and patrolled by 18,500 agents. These facts reinforce the notion of an “illegal invasion” popularized by anti-immigration reform fear-mongers. The fact of the matter is the problem is not how to deal with an “unprecedented influx” of immigrants crossing the border illegally, as they would have us think. The actual number of people seeking illegal entry into the country is down dramatically, as indicated by the steep drop in those caught making illegal crossings. The real issue is about reforming immigration laws now and implementing a realistic path towards citizenship for those individuals who live in the U.S. and consider themselves Americans, but just don’t have the proper documentation.
My mother came to this country legally, but she came during a time of uncertainty when the U.S. was ending its engagement in an unpopular war. Immigration to the U.S. isn’t just about filling out paperwork in your country of origin and waiting to hear your name called – it often is rife with themes of political persecution, warfare, a lack of opportunities available, or being brought to the U.S. at a young age and not ever even considering your legal status. There are a numerous instances, in fact, of young people not even knowing of their legal status until they apply for a driver’s license or submit applications for college.
This afternoon, thousands will converge for an immigration reform rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to challenge the broken system in place now. Dozens of cities nationwide will also host their own immigration reform events, as well as reach out to their representatives, in solidarity with the rally at the Capitol. Prominent experts on the subject of immigration reform, such as civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez, Executive Director of CASA de Maryland Immigration Gustavo Torres, and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry are scheduled to speak, as well as members of immigrant families speaking about their own experiences. The purpose of the rally is to demand comprehensive immigration reform that also provides a clear cut path towards citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in living and working in the United States.
In my mother’s case, the path towards American citizenship meant better pay, better jobs, and better lives. She and my aunts and uncle began their lives in the U.S. as refugees, and then worked as farmworkers. Today they all have steady jobs, warm homes, and bragging rights for all their kids who have gone to college. They are the epitome of the American Dream.
The United States is a country of founded by immigrants. Only when there is an equitable immigration policy, can the American Dream ethos continue to reflect the values on which the nation was founded.