In Her Loving Memory, I Fight Back

May 6, 2019
Thu Quach, PIVOT Board Member

My beloved mother passed away on October 16, 2005. She was only 58 years old. In those years, she had survived immense poverty, the birth of five children, the loss of her second son, a war, a perilous escape on a small boat with three young children for days at sea, living in refugee camps, and resettling in a foreign land where she barely spoke English. Yet, it was cancer that finally took her down. Just thirteen months after her diagnosis, she was taken from us. But even after her death, her impact continued.

My mother was a cosmetologist, working with many chemicals in poorly ventilated salons. She often came home with headaches and skin irritations. After her diagnosis, my mother, who was never able to finish grade school in Vietnam because her family was too poor, asked some important questions, “If there is no history of cancer in my family, then why me?” It wasn’t a question of self-pity, but a question she wanted me to answer. “Is it because of the chemicals I work with?” In her last months, she tasked me with answering this important question, encouraged me to pursue a doctoral degree in public health research, brainstormed with me the topic of my doctoral dissertation, and even identified the data sources on licensed cosmetologists and manicurists for my research. She was more than an inspiration; she was the brains behind my research.

For the next 12 years, I dedicated my life’s work to promoting health and safety for nail salon workers. Working with the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, I conducted seminal research that highlighted the overexposure of salon workers to harmful chemicals in cosmetic products, and their links to adverse health outcomes. I provided trainings to hundreds of Vietnamese nail salon workers, and supported groundbreaking policies that promoted healthier workplaces and safer cosmetic products. Our work gained national attention in the New York Times, and ignited a movement for salon workers’ rights and safety across the nation. All of this work was done collectively with other incredible individuals, from salon workers to their children. For many of us, we were inspired by our love for our own mothers and sisters who sacrificed their health to make a living. We knew they deserved better.

I recalled once when I was headed to Washington, DC to speak at a Congressional briefing to advocate for federal legislation that would remove harmful chemicals from nail care products, I received a call from an older Vietnamese man who had just lost his wife to cancer. She was also a nail salon worker for many years. He had looked me up, and wanted to share his story about his wife. We both cried on the phone, and he thanked me for fighting for our loved ones. During my journey, I met many workers and their family members who shared similar tragic stories. Listening to them, I am always reminded of my mother.

My mother was the catalyst behind my research, and the inspiration behind my years of fighting for occupational health for nail salon workers. Her value was immeasurable. Yet, on paper, my mother was just another poor immigrant, with little education and limited skills, and who barely spoke much English. Our family had been dependent on public assistance when we first came to the US. When she was diagnosed with cancer, my mother had to re-enroll into Medicaid because her job did not provide any health insurance, and our family could not afford the expensive cancer treatment.

Under the Trump Administration, people like my mother would have been deemed undeserving to stay in this country. Under a proposed rule called public charge, immigrants like my mother would have been seen as “dependent on the government,” based on factors like her education, income, and skillset, and because she used public benefits like Medicaid. She would have been denied lawful permanent residence, and even possibly be deported. I myself am considered a successful immigrant, being highly educated, working as an executive at a non-profit community health center, and paying high taxes. Yet, the mother who raised me, supported me, and inspired me to make significant contributions to this nation, would have been deemed undeserving to remain in this country.

I think back to those thirteen months while my mother received treatment for her cancer. If she was forced to choose between receiving cancer treatment and keeping her family safe, I know what her choice would have been. Luckily, she did not have to face that decision. But that is not the case for many poor immigrants today. Where I work at Asian Health Services, we provide health care to nearly 30,000 patients, many of whom are poor immigrants. We are seeing many patients and their families having to choose between health care and keeping their families together. One patient refused to see a specialist for her breast cancer diagnosis because she was too afraid of being deported. For cancer, the difference in days could mean life or death. Pregnant women are refusing to receive WIC benefits, which we know too well will affect both the mother and child. Families are refusing food stamps, and their children are going hungry. This public charge policy is targeting immigrants, like us.

I think about my mother, and how her resilient strength fueled my fight for salon workers. I think about the days when she laid in the hospital, in pain, fighting for her life. I am grateful she did not have to worry about how receiving treatment would put her family in danger. Yet, I think about the countless immigrant mothers who have to face these hard choices. That is immoral.  

So on this Mother’s Day, I recommit to the fight for our immigrant community to live safe and healthy lives. On this Mother’s Day, I call upon all those who have benefitted from their mother’s countless sacrifices, and ask you to join me and many others in this fight for our immigrant community.

Join our fight to stop the harmful public charge policies. Join our #OneNation movement.

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