California Forum

Refugees deserve better treatment

A woman offers legal services at the customs arrival area at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 4, as demonstrators oppose President Donald Trump’s executive orders barring entry to the U.S. from seven Muslim-dominated countries.
A woman offers legal services at the customs arrival area at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 4, as demonstrators oppose President Donald Trump’s executive orders barring entry to the U.S. from seven Muslim-dominated countries. Associated Press

My family arrived in Sacramento from Vietnam on Dec. 17, 1992.

We were part of the Orderly Departure Program, organized by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which resettled 623,509 Vietnamese abroad from 1980 to 1997 – 458,367 came to the United States. The program was supported by Republican and Democratic presidents.

Before the program began, thousands of Vietnamese refugees were making dangerous journeys in small boats with the goal of landing somewhere, anywhere. It became a global crisis, with thousands living in refugee camps in other countries or dying at sea.

My family and I were lucky. Instead of crossing the open sea (my parents considered it), we applied for political asylum. It took years to go through the long application process, with individual interviews of all family members and health exams complete with vaccinations. But we took out a travel loan and eventually boarded a plane to the U.S.

We settled in Sacramento because my dad had a friend here, and he heard that the weather was favorable and the vegetables plentiful. It was an invaluable opportunity for our chance at the American Dream, however fraught it may be. Years later, my parents were able to pay back the travel loan.

I am grateful to my caring public school teachers, starting with my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. DeGusta. She invited my mom to sit in the back of the classroom when I was crying during my first weeks of school. And she would pay for my school photographs and field trips.

DeGusta and other teachers helped me navigate the education system. Government programs enabled my family to survive and thrive in America, from public assistance to Medi-Cal to affordable housing.

My story isn’t meant to glorify assimilation while glossing America’s history of discrimination, injustice and violence. But it speaks to how we can do better.

President Donald Trump is discriminating against Muslim immigrants and refugees, while fostering a climate of hostility toward all immigrants. To judge all Muslims as potentially “terrorist” is like calling my family Communist; my father risked his life and was a prisoner of war for six years fighting against communism.

People fleeing from oppression and desperate situations, caused by civil war or U.S. bombs, face stereotypes and discrimination brought on by unreasonable fear.

It’s heartbreaking that our nation is banning some of the most brilliant and vulnerable refugees from setting foot here. It’s not because we can’t vet them; we have policies and a framework in place. It’s because we lack the moral imperative and heart to do so.

ThienVinh Nguyen was born in Chau Doc, Vietnam, and raised in Sacramento. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at University College London. She can be contacted at hellothienvinh@gmail.com.

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