We Are Americans Now

July 2, 2018

Phuong-Chi Nguyen

My family came to the United States in 1975 after fleeing Saigon by boat. After being rescued at sea, we were sent to Camp Pendleton in San Diego. I was born five months later, the first of my family in the country.  

In that first wave after the war, we were welcomed with open arms in America. Sponsors helped my parents find jobs and we were able to save money, buy houses. For my part, I went to school, worked hard, and listened to everything the teachers told me.

I was what Americans called the “model minority.” A good immigrant.

My family thrived here in America. We opened businesses: nail salons and real estate offices. Family members passed the citizenship exam with the specific purpose of bringing over loved ones who had been left behind. Bit by bit, we were reclaiming lives that had been torn apart by war.

American people looked at us and said, “That’s the American Dream.”

We were very good immigrants.

When I reached college, the debate over immigration was a major issue in California. Undocumented immigrants had become integrated into schools and businesses and all walks of life. Many of them had come here as children and were just living their lives, not hurting anyone. I understand they didn’t have legal status, but in my heart I felt they should be able to go to school and hold onto jobs. At the time, I didn’t know how to express my thoughts.  

I didn’t have the words to challenge the law. I only knew the words to make myself fit in.

Now Donald Trump is President and his party insists America must end ‘chain migration’.

What is chain migration? Republicans attacked the policy of family reunification, claiming that one naturalized citizen can pull in a chain of immigrants, one after another. Immigrants who were unskilled and uneducated. Immigrants were decried as bad to the country and the economy, taking jobs away from Americans the White House claimed.

Who wouldn’t want to reunite with their families? And why were we being criticized for applying for green cards and getting jobs? Weren’t we supposed to start working as soon as possible to support ourselves?

“Mom,” I called on the phone, angry. “This is our family they’re talking about. They’re acting like we cheated our way here, like we don’t belong when we did everything right.”

“Daughter, are you reading some nonsense newspaper?”

“Mom, this is the White House’s statement. This is the President.”

Republican leaders claimed so-called “merit-based” immigration is better. Immigrants who were wealthy before they came here were now the good immigrants. Immigrants who already spoke English, not people like us who had to study and learn. Not people who had to work in shops and on assembly lines to save up pennies.

Nguyen family ( so many of us) at Camp Pendleton, San Diego 1975