Tag: Immigration

Articles

Establishing Social and Political Identity in a New Land

Phuoc M. Duong

College students universally experience insecurities about life decisions and the uncertainties of the future. In Western and “developing” countries alike, youth are enfolded into prolonged periods of under-employment and unemployment, sinking them into a deep oblivion of change that might never come.

For a majority of students from Vietnam, the journey into adulthood is marked with great uncertainties that lead to a series of actions such as excessive studying or seeking to emigrate to a Western country to ensure one’s educational and occupational future. My ethnographic research in Da Nang City captures the anxiety, emotional and financial investments, and the fostering of social relationships that young adults and their families partake in order to secure a socially and financially sound future. My research sheds light on the urgency of urban students to win admission into state universities as the must-have criteria for constructing a socially desirable public self. This criterion is also a must-have to possess the potential to win meaningful employment in an unpredictable market economy. For those that find themselves unable to win admission into a state university, a reality of start-and-stop career opportunities becomes the norm. For example, students that do not win admission into a university will often spend the next year studying to take an exam again. In the meantime, students find work performing menial labor such as customer service or being a café server to earn some form of income. Some students also fail the second time they take the exam, thus forcing them to continue working to earn a living. For a growing population, however, a life in the United States becomes an attractive viable option to start life anew.


California Dreaming Amid Uncertainty

California plays a focal dreamland in the imagination of young adults in Vietnam when it comes to the good life that America promises. The term “Mỹ” is the common moniker for the U.S., meaning “beautiful.” During my fieldwork, young adults often asked me about college admission in the U.S. More common than not, students expressed that if they were to come to the U.S., they would like to come to California because they have family there or have heard that there is a big Vietnamese community living there. Some also refer to California because of the Hollywood films they’ve seen, thus further amplifying its dreamlike quality.

Students from Vietnam seek entry into the U.S. through several paths. Admission into a college or university stands as the most popular legal route. However, stepping foot onto America is only the beginning of a pro-longed journey of uncertainties in the foreign social landscape. Students that come to the U.S. to study often venture on the journey alone only with limited English training back at home. Most are not equipped with any prior knowledge of the ethnic tension and political tension in the U.S. Some are shocked by the blatant racism that they experience from strangers because of their lack of command of the English language.

California plays a focal dreamland in the imagination of young adults in Vietnam when it comes to the good life that America promises.

For college students coming from Vietnam, adaptation to American life requires the know-how to maneuver the legal apparatus like obtaining an ID, driver’s license, and a legal place of residence. These processes are handled immediately after arrival and are often facilitated by family members, friends of the family, or through the courtesy of the college campus they are attending. However, the struggles of the foreign student become more pronounced after the resettlement process when they have to eventually confront the everyday social landscape with limited language skills, lack of comrades and, most importantly, the lack of resources to be a confident social actor.

Confidence as a tool for adaptation is one of the themes that I observed most among two research informants that I have come to know, Thanh and Huy. I have known Thanh since my ethnographic research in Da Nang City, Vietnam, from 2011-2013. I have continued to stay in touch with Thanh through her different life changes since immigrating to the U.S. Our conversations were in Vietnamese with English interspersed at different points, especially since Thanh has been living in the U.S. Huy is currently an adult returning student attending California State University, Fullerton. He immigrated to the U.S. as an adult in his early thirties when he already had a decent occupation in Vietnam as a lecturer and educator. Conversations with Huy took place in English with Vietnamese interspersed.

Thanh appears in my dissertation at various points[1] because she was one of the most active informants for my research. As a student at the high school where I was conducting fieldwork, Thanh shared her life experience as a student herself and introduced me to her friends. Thanh attended one of the highest ranked high schools in Da Nang city with aspirations of winning entry into the Polytechnic University of Da Nang, but fell short of winning admission. Her scores were indeed high enough for her to enroll into a lower-ranked three-year state college, but why settle? Thanh, like many students in her position, was apprehensive about obtaining a three-year degree because she was worried it would not be strong enough to compete with degrees from other four-year universities. Ultimately, Thanh did not choose the three-year college path. She instead enrolled into a more expensive private university specializing in Tourism Studies. Thanh and her family made the sacrifice of choosing the more expensive private university to make her more competitive in the job market.

Thanh attended the private university only for a year and we kept in contact during that time via Facebook, and I also returned to the field for follow up research. She seemed to pushing along with her studies. It was indeed a great surprise to me when she posted a picture on Facebook one day of a passport and boarding pass. The caption cryptically read, “Goodbye Vietnam, I have to try harder.” I messaged Thanh to ask about the suddenness of her departure and she replied that she had passed her interview to come to the U.S. to study.  Her family arranged for her to leave immediately.

In the U.S., Thanh lived with an aunt and an uncle who had immigrated to the U.S. years prior. They lived in the American South for cheaper rent and less competition in the nails industry. Thanh worked for her aunt and uncle as a nail technician while attending a community college taking ESL classes at first with the hopes of moving up to pursue a degree in business or even nursing. It was always Thanh’s goal to obtain a degree to return to work in Vietnam or to permanently stay in the U.S. It was never her objective to come to the U.S. to purely become a manual laborer. Her American dreams exceeded this type of menial work.

As an international student without any financial assistance, Thanh became weary that her status was becoming untenable. Her parents were borrowing money from her aunt and uncle in the U.S. in order to pay for her tuition. The debt was mounting and prospects of employment remained uncertain. Thanh eventually stopped attending classes at the community college to solely focus on working at a nail salon to make a decent living.

Thanh eventually stopped attending classes at the community college to solely focus on working at a nail salon to make a decent living.

Thanh recounted her life as a cycle of work, home, work, and church on the weekends. She often lamented her situation as nothing that she envisioned because her primary goal for coming to the U.S. was for education. She longed to attend school just like peers around her age did. Thanh expressed that she couldn’t achieve much of a social identity with her current, unmapped pattern of living. She relied on her co-workers to take her to work and back home at the end of the day. Outside of co-workers at the nail salon, she did not have many other social interactions. Due to complications regarding her paper work in August 2017, Thanh expressed to me in a conversation at the height of her disappointment. She frustratingly conveyed the following:

I keep thinking I came here to alter my future but everything that has happened has surpassed the limits of my expectations… I cannot continue to sit and be a nail technician forever like this… I would only be willing to endure this (life in the U.S.) for a few more years by going to my cousin (in Texas) to work then I will return to Vietnam and study again. I would rather do that then bury my youth (chôn vùi tuổi trẻ) at the nail salon… I have been here for almost three years and I can’t even name one friend. Increasingly, I have become a depressed individual with no voice and no laughter.[2]

Following the peak of her frustration in Fall 2017, Thanh reached out to me to tell me that she was planning to move to Texas. I was surprised because it was such a bold move for a foreign student to be so brave to relocate. She was willing to pick up her barely stable American life and live in another state. Thanh asked for my advice on this decision and for me to help her with the process or purchasing a Greyhound bus ticket. When I asked why she was making such a drastic decision of separating from her familial base, she simply expressed that she had a cousin living in Texas and there was a much bigger Vietnamese community there. She would no longer feel isolated.

Thanh made the journey from Georgia to Texas as planned, and similar to past life changes, she writes me from time to time with updates and questions. With the passing of time, through our conversations I detected an emerging sense of joy and confidence from Thanh through the content of conversation that she expressed. Thanh was most joyous when she reached out to me to announce that she passed her nail technician exam in Texas: “Anh ơi, em đậu bằng nail rồi.” When I asked how she accomplished this task, she told me a story of the chain of connections set in motion by the local Vietnamese community in Texas that helped her.

Upon moving in with her cousin, Thanh routinely attended a Vietnamese Christian church. She met workers at a nail salon that introduced her to the owners. She expressed that the owners knew that she was in the country by herself and offered to help her with obtaining her license. The owners of the nail salon connected Thanh to a beauty school that they had social ties with. The nail salon owners assisted Thanh greatly because they allowed her to work while concurrently taking classes at the beauty school. The obtainment of a nail technician license with the aid of the community increased Thanh’s confidence. Now she was able to work without the fear of being fined.

The Vietnamese community—especially the Christian community—not only offered Thanh the help she needed to become a certified worker, but they also created social spaces for Thanh to become a realized social actor. In Georgia, her social interactions were restricted to her family members, coworkers, and patrons at the nail salon. But in Texas, Thanh now has expanded her social network by not only working openly, but also by establishing social connections through the church, of which she is also a member of the singing troupe.

Phuoc-3

 

From the Family Unit to Political Freedom

Thanh’s slow integration into American life began at the level of the familial unit, but then shifted to her breaking out of that unit to establish a social presence via the assistance of the Vietnamese American community. This highlights how confidence provides an impetus for discovering new political philosophies. The Vietnamese American community in Little Saigon also provides a foundation for the exploration of political freedom. This phenomenon is seen through the educational life experiences of a returning university student from Vietnam name Huy.

Living in Little Saigon, for the first time in his adult life, Huy finally felt the security to vocalize opinions on topics that mattered to him.

Huy arrived in the United States in 2013 at the age of thirty-three via sponsorship from his father. At the time of his departure, Huy was already a legal working adult in Vietnam with a Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Languages and a Master’s degree in Business Administration. Despite holding an advanced degree, Huy was not a contracted full-time worker, but instead found periodic work teaching and tutoring students near his home in District 11 of Ho Chi Minh City. He also taught classes at colleges and universities to make a living. Although the earnings were only enough to “make ends meet,” Huy was employed in a reputable field with a steady, decent earning. This made his living circumstances less arduous than a larger number of the young adult population living in Ho Chi Minh City.

Newly arrived to Southern California, Huy first attended Orange Coast College then later transferred to California State University, Fullerton. Living in Little Saigon, for the first time in his adult life, Huy finally felt the security to vocalize opinions on topics that mattered to him. While living in Vietnam, Huy expressed that he was very active in choral societies and music clubs, often performing at school and political functions. However, he shared that he only participated in those activities as an avenue to express his passion for music, and not an act of support for governmental ideologies or practice of socialism in Vietnam. In fact, Huy felt stifled by the politics in Vietnam because he did not feel free: “mình không thấy tự do.” One of Huy’s main contentions is that he is a firm believer in Buddhism, but religion can only be practiced quietly in Vietnam and must not interfere in any form of politics. Huy’s family is also from the south with no connection to the northern power holders, and thus he has not personally reaped any rewards from socialism.

As an adult university student in the U.S., Huy continually seeks opportunities to put his English communicative skills to use. In our conversation about adapting to American life as a latecomer, Huy articulates that the reality of living in America is not the dreamland that he once “saw in the movies.” Huy recounted his early experience of arriving to the United States:

When I first came here, things were strange. The reality here was different from what I saw in the movies. Spoken language was difficult. It was hard for me to express my ideas. I remember I asked a man for direction to my school, and he shouted at me! These experiences made me more of introvert.”[3]

Huy expresses great gratitude for the presence of a strong Vietnamese community in Little Saigon, especially for the many Buddhist temples that are in operation so that he can practice his faith. Most important, he feels lucky that the community has given him the support and confidence to exercise his political ambitions, a freedom that he never felt in Vietnam. Per our conversation, I discovered that Huy possessed a strong desire to be an active political actor fighting for causes of democracy. Huy expressed the following in his own words:

I urged myself to study at any cost and get more involved in the surrounding communities… I choose to give before getting. Hence, I have joined a variety of community activities. I have co-founded a club of religion and democracy called Trần Nhân Tông club, co-founded and directed a musical band to entertain nursing homes and communities, joined the direction board of a scholarship fund to support poor and diligent students in Vietnam, co-founded a Vietnamese student fellowship of Fullerton, which is joined and supported by some Vietnamese professors and officials from CSUF, and recently started participating in some programs by a Vietnamese television.[4]

Huy’s revelation forefronts the role of the Vietnamese American community in facilitating his goals of becoming an active social actor. By participating in the Trần Nhân Tông Club, Huy aims to promote discussions and practices that link Buddhism and traditional Vietnamese philosophies of democracy cohesively. Huy, like many Vietnamese Americans living in Little Saigon, hopes for a Vietnam that one day applies more democratic values to its governance in order for the citizenry to express their agreement or displeasures with the government. For the time being, participating in the Trần Nhân Tông club allows Huy to explore the democratic teachings of the former king divorced from political ideologies that he learned in Vietnam. Vietnamese American communities throughout the United States play significant roles in not only assisting new immigrants to establish a legal presence, but also the role of equipping them with the confidence to become social and political actors. Through the stories of Thanh and Huy, attention focuses on the often-overlooked struggles of foreign-born college students to become active members of American life. By linking the building of their confidence to the labor of past Vietnamese American generations, Vietnamese American communities continue to be vital forces in ensuring that newer generations benefit from and further contribute to the accomplishments of the Vietnamese diaspora.

Flickr user Brooke Williams

Pollak Library, photo from Flickr user Brooke Williams.

Notes

[1] Phuoc M. Duong, “Unpredictable Agency: An Analysis of Youth and Educational Practices in Times of Political and Economic Precarity in Contemporary Đà Nẵng City, Việt Nam,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Riverside, June 2017. This research conducted ethnographic research on young adults, education, agency, and governance in Da Nang City from December 2011 through March 2013. I then conducted archival research in Ha Noi City from October 2013 through January 2014. After that, I conducted archival research in Ho Chi Minh City from January to March 2014. I have returned to Da Nang City to follow up with informants in the summer of 2015, 2016, and 2017.

[2] Personal conversation, 6 August 2017.

[3] Personal conversation, 21 February 2018.

[4] Personal conversation, 21 February 2018.

 

Phuoc M. Duong holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology, and teaches in Asian American Studies and Cultural Anthropology at CSU Fullerton. His current research interest focuses on the labor of young adults in promoting the economic and political “success” of Da Nang City, Vietnam. He is also concurrently researching the development of alternative philosophies of “democracy” within the Vietnamese American population in Little Saigon.

Copyright: © 2018 Phuoc M. Duong. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

From the Green of Vietnam to Toes Painted with Nirvana

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Photograph by Doug McCulloh.

Susan Straight

They came here because of war, though people might not think of it that way when sitting down in the massage chair to have Anna Nguyen or Ly Ngo bend gracefully over their fingertips and sit with curved back over their feet. But from the years of brutal conflict in Vietnam, the farmlands and jungles and colonial-era streets of Saigon, men who fought alongside Americans were sent to reeducation camps, tortured and starved, and their wives and children had to fend for themselves in the ruined land.

Now nail salons anchor nearly every strip mall and upscale shopping plaza. Excellent Nails, Star Nails, Hot Nails—thousands of doors out of which float the sharp smells of acetone and the lilting voices of women who paint delicate flower petals onto toenails, with a flick of the fingers and concentration.

At Nail Spa Boutique in Riverside, Kim Ngo sits on a low stool where she spends her eight-to-ten-hour days, tonight trimming excess cuticle from Charlie Freeman’s toenails, then rubbing off dead skin with a pumice tool, then rinsing the feet, and then massaging lotion into Freeman’s calves. Freeman, a realtor, comes here once a month, and so do her husband, daughter, son, and her seven-year-old granddaughter. She considers pedicures a necessary part of life, saying with laughter, “Red makes my toes look better.” Ngo finally strokes on the color. Twenty toes—Too Red.

Kim Ngo came to Riverside twenty-two years ago from Saigon. She murmurs in Vietnamese that she doesn’t miss Saigon so much because she makes a lot more money here, but there is wistfulness in her voice. Her husband was in a reeducation camp after the war. I saw Ngo last week in Target, and she gave me a hug. We stood in line together, her cart holding only bottled water and French-style baguettes for lunch at the salon; she glanced at other full shopping carts and said softly to me, “Americans all so tall—they have so much food. Look how short—I never had food in Vietnam.”

“Mani-pedi” is now a part of American lexicon because of women like Ngo, who left home. Minh Pham is here at Nail Spa today, translating. His sister-in-law Nga Pham is working on a manicure at the table near the door. Minh’s mother, age sixty-one, worked for twenty years at Nail Tyme in Corona and now works at Nail Soleil there.

Minh Pham:

My father was in reeducation camp for ten years for fighting alongside the Americans during the Vietnam War and for trying to flee the country by boat. He saw many of his comrades die from starvation, illness, and being overworked. My father was forced to go into a land-mine-filled forest and clear trees and till the land to grow fruits and vegetables. Once a day, he was fed a small bowl of rice and a tablespoon of saltwater. While working, he would pick wild mushrooms and vegetation from the forest to eat. To keep him alive, my mother quit college to sell cigarettes and used clothes in the streets of Saigon to buy my father medicine and dried fish to eat.

My mother had to find work less than a month after coming to America in order to keep our family from becoming homeless. Working in the nail shop was the best fit because she was not required to know English and she knew family friends who owned Nail Tyme. She liked working in the nail shop because the tips helped her pay for food and she could learn English from talking to her customers. But over time, she developed asthma from breathing in the fumes. Her only dreams were for her two sons to graduate from college and to visit her seven siblings still living in Vietnam.

The chairs are all filled on a Friday night just before Memorial Day. Ten women work at Nail Spa in a Target shopping plaza, opened fifteen years ago. My daughters came here for prom manicures, once or twice a year, and then for their brows. No one does my daughter Rosette’s brows like Kim Dang, who was always so kind, so patient, and when she asked about my family, I realized I knew little about hers. Her husband was also in a reeducation camp, and she came here twenty-two years ago from the Vietnamese city of Cuu Long.

The culture of Vietnamese-owned nail salons began in 1975, when twenty women refugees arrived at a tent city called Hope Village near Sacramento. The actress Tippi Hedren, famous for Hitchcock films, visited the refugee camp, and the women were fascinated with her painted nails. She arranged for them to attend beauty school, and an industry was born. Now, more than 80 percent of California nail salons are owned by Vietnamese-born or Vietnamese Americans, an estimated 50 percent of all American nail technicians are Vietnamese, and Orange County is the capital of the technology. From Florida to New York to Los Angeles, Vietnamese women dominate the business in salons that also offer eyebrow waxing, facials, and hair services. But sometimes customers forget how physically hard the technicians work, or that they’ve spent their own savings on technician training and licensing and the equipment of a salon, where specialized chairs cost $5,000 to $10,000. Now and then, customers berate technicians for a smudge, complain about a fill, make fun of their language, or accuse them of talking about customers in Vietnamese. Nail technicians say sadly that their work isn’t always appreciated, but men seem to love the pampering. Minh’s cousin’s favorite customer in Corona is an African American construction worker who comes for a mani-pedi twice a month, leaves big tips, and smiles.

Tonight, fifty to sixty women will relax in the big chairs, and ten women will pull up stools and sit and bend and stand and stretch, with the tiny bottles of vivid paint beside them like totems, like the big Buddha who graces the altar. Every salon has a Buddha surrounded by flowers and incense and fruit—offerings for a good day.

Ming Ming finishes Devan Benter’s toes with a hot pink called New York Summer. Ming came here in 2000 from Saigon, because her husband’s family was already in Riverside. Nearby, Sylvia Villa’s toenails are painted in the milky brown shade of Nirvana (reminding me of the color of the Mekong River), with an overcoat of Big Money, and she smiles.

Ly Ngo came here twenty-two years ago from Saigon, and now is the manager of Nail Spa. She works at the opaque Lucite table near the front, doing French tip manicures, keeping an eye on the sign-in sheet and the money, helping a customer into the ubiquitous flat-plastic sandals to wear while the polish dries. She listens patiently to a regular customer speak about her family, her work. Ngo and the others overhear cell phone arguments with boyfriends, sad stories of love lost. Do they whisper to each other about the past, about the foods or cousins they miss in Vietnam? Their customers will likely never know.

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Photographs from the Pham wedding.

In a 1970s television commercial for detergent, Madge the manicurist would listen sympathetically to a story about a woman with dishpan hands, and Madge would say, “Try Palmolive; you’re soaking in it!” Back then, my girlfriends and I painted our own fingernails, inexpertly, with polish we bought from Kmart. I had never met a manicurist in my life. Manicures cost $70 or more and were the province of the wealthy.

But during that same time, on that same television, images of America’s war in Vietnam terrified those watching as napalm fires raged to the sky and children ran away, as soldiers were airlifted in helicopters and fleeing Vietnamese civilians were huddled in those same helicopters, leaving their country behind.

Minh Pham:

The boat people left during the late 1970s. A lot of the people who escaped had to stay in the refugee camps until a country allowed them to enter. If they were not allowed to enter, then they were shipped back to Vietnam. Boat people landed everywhere: Southeast Asian countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines). They waited to enter European countries and the U.S.

In the late 1980s to early 1990s, under Humanitarian Operation, families of Southern Vietnamese soldiers who suffered persecution from the Communists were allowed to come to America. Our family came under HO in 1994. My mother was studying literature and law in Vietnam before the Viet Cong invaded Saigon. My parents chose to come to America so my brother and I could go to college. My mother told me that if I stayed in Vietnam, I would be selling lottery tickets on the streets or making carpenter nails in a factory. My eighth aunt and her daughter, my female cousin, actually worked in a factory hammering nails until about two years ago. My other aunts helped their sister get a job selling clothes in the outdoor market.

Minh Pham graduated in 2013 with a Master of Fine Arts degree from University of California, Riverside, where he worked for three years on a book of essays and poetry about his parents. For him, his mother has bent over thousands of feet every year, and his father has worked hundreds of hours in a Chinese buffet restaurant. After twenty-two years, his mother has asthma, joint pain, and some trouble breathing. But she still works six days a week, brushing onto nails, ten at a time, the small strokes of color that will dry under her breath.

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Photograph by Doug McCulloh.

Susan Straight is an award-winning novelist and essayist from Riverside, California. Her work has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lannan Prize, and the Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement from The Los Angeles Times.

Interviews

Locked-Up Vietnamese California

Interview-1

Tin Nguyen
Bidhan Chandra Roy

Editor’s Note: The Vietnamese diaspora comprises a significant population among California’s immigrant communities. For some of these, the trauma of involuntary migration and the subsequent necessity to negotiate Vietnamese and American identities did not lead to enriching new experiences or cultural formations. A less visible demographic than those currently celebrated by food, literary, or cultural critics today are the Vietnamese Americans currently incarcerated in California’s vast prison system. Not long ago, almost 65% of California’s Asian and Pacific Islander prison population was comprised of either immigrants or refugees, and Vietnamese Americans represented the largest segment of the Asian and Pacific Islander California prison demographic at 22%.[1] This constitutes a significant number of Vietnamese Americans currently incarcerated in California—a fact remaining largely unknown to many Californians.

One such person, for whom the trauma of migration and the negotiation of identities in California produced a path to prison is Tin Nguyen, who is currently serving a “Life Without the Possibility of Parole” sentence at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster. As a former Vietnamese gang member, Tin is now a student in Cal State LA’s BA program at Lancaster, as well as a published writer. Boom editorial board member Bidhan Chandra Roy sat down with Tin over three meetings to discuss his childhood experiences of fleeing Vietnam as a child in the 1970s, his role in establishing a new wave of Vietnamese street gangs in Southern California in the 1990s, and his hard-fought transformation into the man he is today. Since recording equipment is not allowed in the prison during the interview, Tin wrote up his responses to the questions following the three meetings.



Boom
: Can you tell us about your experiences traveling from Vietnam to California as a child in the 1970s? What do you remember of that journey? Do you ever recall these memories today?

Tin: At 145 pounds and thirty-two years of age, I was standing in front of the ‘C’ section shower in Building 3 on a maximum-security prison yard. A group of muscular, heavyset Crip members surrounded me, disputing for a shower that none of us own; really, the State of California owned the shower. I knew if I didn’t back down, I could expect at the very least a severe beating, and quite likely, a knife to the gut or a sliced throat. Yet I stood there, at the risk of my own life, because this shower was claimed by the Asians; the marking of our territory. At that moment, I thought, “So this is how I’m going to die… this is how my life sentence was going to end….”

In that moment, I couldn’t help but rapidly wonder, “How did I get here? What happened to the once little Vietnamese boy who pulled his small red wagon along the streets of Pomona and sold flowers to help his mother buy milk for his baby brother?” How did that innocent kid become a monster now tagged P24706?

At that moment, I thought, “So this is how I’m going to die… this is how my life sentence was going to end….”

I remember the boat journey in the late ’70s as flashes of images. There is an image of my godparents hugging me tight; through their tears, they tried to act as if everything was normal. I guess, because of the tension in Vietnam, they didn’t want any suspicion of what was going to happen, an attempt to escape Vietnam. Then there are images of my mother under the cover of darkness passing—or should I say, throwing (my mother would disapprove of this characterization)—me from boat to boat. Thinking of how our boat sped away from two other boats, I remember the word, “pirates,” repeated on everyone’s lips and a throng of rowdy men with all sorts of objects in their hands for weapons.

I remember us all on the boat’s roof, bowing our heads, and me trying to look over, seeing for the first time, men with pale skin standing on the deck of a large ship. We begged for their assistance, to no avail; they just passed by leaving us to fend for ourselves in the great ocean.

Then our boat finally landed. At the island where I have the fondest memories, images and feelings of happiness, swimming all day and following my brother on the shore as the tide was low, catching crabs and fishes. After that, I remember feeling frightened on a plane as I encountered people of different ethnicities, on our way to California.

Scan 2017-7-27 22.51.41


Boom
: What was it like for you growing up in Pomona during the 1980s and 1990s?

Tin: In Pomona, everything was different. In second grade, I was the only Vietnamese kid in class, and not speaking a word of English, I hated school. Kids can be cruel. Yet, the constant taunts of “ching-chong,” “jap,” and “dirty gook,” were the least of my miseries. Because they wanted to test my kung fu, I was punched in the throat and smacked on the back of my head during long walks home from school. To this day, I still have a vivid memory of being run over by a bike—my books were everywhere, I was facedown, and a BMX wheel was on my back, pinning me to ground, while the guy snickered, “You should’ve gotten out my way,” and spit on me. He then rode over me. I cried as I picked up my stuff off the ground, while other kids walked by and laughed, but no one helped. I cried all the way home, and then some. I thought it was my fault for being in his way, but then it occurred to me that all his friends had rode around me with plenty of room. That’s when a spark of anger ignited within me. But that anger from those physical discomforts didn’t compare to what ultimately fueled my anger with a real hate.

What truly fueled my anger was the thought of my family being subjected to the same abuse and discrimination. I remember my older sister sitting in the schoolyard lunch area crying, while other Vietnamese kids were making fun of her. What made this especially painful was the American kids were laughing about how they’d gotten us to turn on each other for their amusement. When I was nine or ten years old, I tried to help an older Vietnamese gentleman who didn’t speak English. There was a misunderstanding at a store, where the sales clerk was accusing the Vietnamese man, hurling crude comments at him, like, “You gook! You’re a thief, coming to the US just to steal and cause trouble. You should’ve stayed in Vietnam.” I remember a feeling of heavy degradation. With my broken English, I attempted to serve as a translator and tried to explain that the Vietnamese man had a receipt. But it was no use. The clerk kept ranting and ended up reducing the Vietnamese man to tears. From that experience, I had the sinking realization that my parents must be suffering similar indignities.

Once I was sitting outside of my older sister’s bedroom door, I heard her crying as she told my cousin how an African-American woman had mistreated her at the college’s financial aid office. I don’t quite recall the exact words, but I do remember clearly the feelings of anger and hate. Hurting me was one thing, but hurting my family was another matter. What made it worse was the helplessness I felt to do anything about it. This is the reason why I’m very protective of my little sister.

I couldn’t claim I was Vietnamese because I barely spoke Vietnamese, and I couldn’t say I was American because I wasn’t born here and barely spoke proper English.

I suppose all these external hardships contributed to who I eventually became, but no less significant were the internal dynamics of my family. Let me start by acknowledging that my father was a very good man who loved his children and always sacrificed for his family. Yet, there were a number of factors that enabled his violent behavior. First, he was raised in a traditional culture where the father’s words are absolute and indisputable, and corporal punishment was the norm. Back in Vietnam, my father was a person of some importance and social standing, so for him, it was a letdown being in America—after losing everything and making all the sacrifices that he did—to become a nobody who had to rely on his wife and whose children wouldn’t even listen to him. I can only imagine how this ate away at his pride, driving him to the edge. Typical days in our house had fights and arguments; I don’t remember a happy moment at home. The Christmas tree tumbled a few times every Christmas. During the year, my mother would vigorously defend her children from her husband’s wrath, after she’d worked all day to put food on the table. Even though my father never made a fist, he did freely use the backhand, the front smack, the belt, the telephone cord, the clothes hanger, and my own favorite—the chopsticks, with a hand full of them, they hurt like hell. I remember like yesterday… I was huddled in the kitchen corner while my mother used her petite body to shield me from being hit by an inch-thick stick as she told my father in Vietnamese: “you’re not going to hit my son with that.” But this was the Vietnamese way, right? Our culture? In such moments, I envied my American friends.

I think what made things worse was that I didn’t know where I belonged, who I was. I couldn’t claim I was Vietnamese because I barely spoke Vietnamese, and I couldn’t say I was American because I wasn’t born here and barely spoke proper English. I felt trapped between two generations of immigrants, one who knew they’re Vietnamese, and one who knew they’re American. My father pushed me to read more and to keep up with my sister in school, and when I couldn’t, I was “dumber than a cow” (English translation). During times when I could, I wasn’t “dumber,” but merely “dumb as a cow.” Either way, I was always dumb. This wasn’t just my father’s assessment, it was everyone’s. I guess they hoped I’d at least be good with my hands. To my mother though, I was always good and smart, but her opinion wasn’t enough. So I ended up with low self-esteem, insecure, lost, and filled with anger and hate.

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Boom
: How did this childhood trauma pave the way for you joining a gang? How did you see Vietnamese gangs begin to proliferate in South California during your adolescence, and what attracted you to join one?

Tin: In America, the first Vietnamese generation’s youth trend was “New Wave,” with its tight pants, pointy shoes, and spiky hair, and dancing to European bands like Modern Talking, CC Catch, and Bad Boys Blue. With no one I deemed worthy as a role model, I turned to my two older brothers. They were cool, and if someone wanted to test their kung fu, they didn’t have any problem showing that their kung fu was better. Seeing them fighting and winning, I developed a sense of Vietnamese pride, so it wasn’t long before I showed others my kung fu was good too. My first violent act was during a summer camp at Cal Poly. When a Caucasian kid tested me, I didn’t hold back, but instead, I punched him. Next thing I knew, a counselor was holding me and a crowd of kids was cheering me on. The counselor sternly stated that I was going to be suspended, and I replied that I didn’t give a fuck, at which point the crowd got even louder. This was not only my first act of violence, but also my first act of rebellion, and I knew then that this was how I must act in order to be respected, like my brothers. The final straw came when some of my boy scout troop and I were jumped by a group of African-American teens. After the teens’ laughter and us lying on the ground of the parking lot, we looked at each other and decided then that the boy scouts was not for us. We chucked our uniforms and donned blue jeans and chains, going from scouts to hoodlums.

In Southern California, there tended to be two kinds of Vietnamese gangs. The first was the street gang, largely unstructured. But unlike their Hispanic or African-American counterparts, it was rare for Vietnamese street gangs to truly represent a street or neighborhood. Rather, they were just some Vietnamese teens who got together and named themselves, mostly in accord with the city they were from—like “Pomona Boys” or “Santa Ana Boys”—or something to do with Vietnamese pride, like “V-Boys” or “Vietnamese For Life.” Since I was Vietnamese and from Pomona, my boys and I decided to call ourselves Vietnamese Gangster (VNG) Pomona V-Boys. We used the appendage “V-Boys” because we were the V-Boys’ younger association and under their protection. We started with minor things like cracking arcade games for money, and then moved up to GTA. Fighting was the norm now, and I soon landed in juvenile camp. Three months later, I came out bigger because I finally hit puberty. Everyone who mattered to me knew that I’d just come from the “box” and it wasn’t long before I went back to camp. My father still had hope for me, but after this second stretch, I disappointed him again and was no longer welcome under his roof. So with no place of my own, at age sixteen, I reached out to my brother Tony in Los Angeles, where I met the Black Dragon for the first time.

This is the second kind of Vietnamese gang, more exclusive to the LA area. This second kind was more engaged in organized crime, after the pattern of triads, perhaps because of the close cultural proximity of the Vietnamese to the Chinese. Black Dragon (Hac Lun) was one of these, and unlike the unstructured street gangs, Black Dragon had an ordered hierarchy where a soldier could move up the ranks and, if he is lucky and doesn’t land in prison for life or die, become an “Anh Hai” or a “Tai Lu”—the equivalent of a “Capo” in the Italian crime families.

The history of the Black Dragon began in the early 1980s. Its predecessor, the Viet Thanh, actually yielded three successors: Cool Boys, LA V-Boys, and Black Dragon. Since each came from Viet Thanh, these three were always at war with its rival, the Chinese gang Wa Ching. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chinatown consisted of both Chinese businesses and Vietnamese businesses. But the Wa Ching began harassing Vietnamese businesses, so the youths of the Vietnamese businesses decided to stand against the Wa Ching. That was how Viet Thanh started. But what started out as noble acts eventually were corrupted as the Viet Thanh became thugs themselves. After the three-way split, Black Dragon migrated to the San Gabriel Valley where it established new territories.

I chose to be part of the Black Dragon mainly because of the respect their members received. For example, one time my boys and I were walking into a nightclub associated with the Black Dragon, and a new bouncer stopped us and pointed us to the back of the line, but then the regular bouncer told him to let us through. (We were all still minors and this club was for those over twenty-one.) When we entered, the new bouncer insisted that we walk through the metal detector, which, of course, we weren’t going to do. This was when the older bouncer stepped in and told the new bouncer, “These guys are the real security of this club.” I still remember his words, and the pride I felt then was overwhelming, but it didn’t compare with what happened next. After my boys and I settled in at a VIP table, this new bouncer asked if he could speak with me. Sitting across from me, he asked for my forgiveness, pleading that he didn’t know since he was new. Here was a middle-aged man humbled, apologizing for his mistake and offering me his services. Respect… at long last.

When I became a member of the Black Dragon gang, I was known as Tin Hac Lun, or Tin BD. I carried that name with pride. When others thought of Black Dragon, I wanted them to think of me. When I was twenty-two, the Temple City Sheriff led the Asian Gang Task Force and rounded up my crew, now known as the “gangbanging” side of Black Dragon. I was facing possible of fifty-eight years for numerous counts of extortion and robbery, so I took a deal for two years and did my time at San Quentin. Obviously, I didn’t learn anything, and worse, I was now connected and moved up the ranks because I’d been to the big house. During this time, my crew and I broke away from our Anh Hai, because we no longer wanted or needed to be under his thumb. We could protect ourselves without him, and we wanted to keep all our earnings and not have to give him a cut. No longer a soldier, I had my own crew. However, we still kept the “Black Dragon” name because we’d earned it, and our loyalty was still to the gang.

Interview-5


Boom
: Tin Hac Lun sounds like a completely different person to the Tin I have known for the past four years. How did the lifestyle you led as Tin Hac Lun end in a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole?

Tin: Drugs were a major detriment in my life. At a young age, I inadvertently unleashed a demon so voracious that it consumed me. I started drinking in seventh grade, and met Mary Jane (marijuana) and Coco (cocaine) when I was fourteen. A couple years later, at a party, I was sitting on the bathroom floor across from a beautiful woman in her twenties, and she passed me a pipe with some crack…. Part of me screamed, “No!” But the demon within me seductively whispered, “Don’t embarrass yourself in front of this glorious girl—just take a hit, that’s all.” And the demon was right; that was all. I became the demon himself. Mary Jane, Coco, and later Crystal (Methamphetamine) became the three loves of my life. They destroyed me and brought me to the edge of suicide. Yet for one reason or another, I couldn’t find the nerve to do it myself, so I went crazy with drugs and gangs, hoping to end it all.

In 1996, during a robbery in San Jose, I killed Mr. Stanko Vuckovic. Throughout the years, I have replayed that moment repeatedly. I asked myself, “Did I pull the trigger?” or “Did the gun go off during the struggle?” After years of contemplating, I realized there were other factors just as significant. The point that I cocked the gun, that I chose to use the gun in the robbery, and above all my decision to rob this man and take what was not mine were all what caused his death. Yet, these were not the only factors. Other elements, such as abusing drugs, joining a gang and choosing a life of crime, were all the bad choices I made that led me to that very moment. I was going to kill someone eventually. Thus, I am responsible for Mr. Stanko Vuckovic’s death; I pulled the trigger and my only hope is that I can make amends for my actions and decisions.

I was arrested a year after I killed Mr. Vuckovic, and in late 1998 I was convicted and sentence to Life With Out the Possibility of Parole. Let me express now, with all respect, what I have wanted to say for two decades. I’ve run this in my head thousands of times…. I mean, how do I express my remorse and say, “I am so sorry” to a man whose life and future I took, to a family whom I hurt, or to the community I damaged? It’s not enough, and I realize that I must do this in person, for words on paper can never be adequate to sincerely express my contrition.

Boom: Thank you for saying that, Tin. I know that you want to return to your remorse and desire to make amends for past actions. But before you had this realization, what was your life like in a maximum-security prison? Was there anything unique about it from a Vietnamese perspective?

Tin: At age twenty-six, I began my journey on the gravel yard track at Pelican Bay, California’s most dangerous state prison. On my first day, an elder Vietnamese convict approached me and said, “Welcome to Pelican Bay, we’re the worst of the worst in California. You’re with us. You run Asian.” As we approached a table full of Asians and Pacific Islander, he expounded on the first rule, concerning “the boundaries.” He explained that the Whites, Blacks, and Mexicans have their tables, workout areas, and basketball and handball courts, and approximately ten feet around those areas was an invisible line that I was not to cross without their permission—if I did, my well-being would be at risk. Likewise, I was not to allow any other race to cross over our line; my job (and the job of all Asians and Pacific Islanders) was to stop the other races from crossing over, and if necessary, to “take flight” (i.e., stab them). So, that was the creed I lived by for many years. In prison, racial segregation was (and is) the norm; this was one of the many rules I had to abide by.

Here, there are two sets of rules. One is the Administration’s. As a prisoner, if you violate those, then you’ll be put in “the Hole.” The other set of rules is the convicts’. If you violate them, then you’ll have holes put in you.

As for the Vietnamese culture in prison, we might be small, but we’re no less vicious than the other races. Maybe it’s the pride we have. I’d read in a Vietnam War book that there are two nationalities that never stop fighting: one is the Irish; the other, the Vietnamese. At Pelican Bay, we Vietnamese were a tight group, and we helped each other with most things, like food, clothes, etc. Even though we had divisions among ourselves, such as North Cali versus South Cali, we united when troubles came our way—we bowed down to no one, even at the risk of our lives.

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Boom
: That life seems a long way behind you now at Lancaster. Tell us about the man you are today, Tin. How did such a remarkable transformation take place?

Tin: This leads me back to the beginning of this interview. I believe there was someone up above divinely watching over me. When I was once surrounded and it looked like it was going to go badly for me, suddenly a big, muscular African American guy and his friends approached the crowd. These guys were Bloods, and they intervened and had a side meeting with the Crips surrounding me. Ultimately, the situation was resolved, and I survived another day. The Good Samaritan’s name was Jimmy, and we eventually became best friends, a big African American and a little Vietnamese. Today, Jimmy and I are both Golden Eagle classmates at California State University, Los Angeles.

Now, during my incarceration, I’ve experienced much pain, and I would shut this pain away, because to feel pain was to be weak, and early in my incarceration I chose never to be weak so that I would not be preyed upon. With this attitude, I felt dead, and in a way I was dead, just a walking corpse with no purpose, hope, or love. Approximately two years ago, I was in a very dark place. I know this sounds cliché, but a dog saved my life. It was part of the Paws for Life Program.[2]

I used to be petrified of dogs— definitely not a dog person. However, all that changed one evening when a Boxer put his head on my lap. Before this happened, my ex-girlfriend had left me. A broken heart is never easy, especially while doing “Life,” and it is not uncommon to feel depressed. However, it should not make one feel hopeless, or even destitute. In hindsight, I realize that this was the pivotal point of my life; whether I was going make it or break it. All the pains of my life, that I had carefully locked away, came rushing out. The pains of my childhood, the regret and remorse of my crime, the loss of my freedom, and the death of my father and brother during my incarceration came back to haunt me. The break up was the key that unlocked my miseries. The pains were excruciating. I wanted to end it one way or another, wanted the pain to go away. I’d kept on like this until I was so broken that I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Once again, I contemplated the forever night, the long sleep. However, an angel came to rescue me. It didn’t come with its majestic wings or divine presence, nor even a halo, but rather with four paws and a mean mug. My angel turned out to be “Vic,” a battered Boxer-breed dog who’d been used as bait for fighting pit bulls. My encounter with Vic happened in a most unusual way.

One evening as I was talking to my friend Bernik, I noticed a Boxer dog full of anxiety. He stood there constantly watching as if something might attack him. Then all of a sudden, he came over and laid his head on my lap. I was scared, yet touched. Then he proceeded to lay down, and Bernik said, “Wow!” It didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me, so I asked why all the excitement. Bernik explained that the Boxer named Vic was a bait dog, who had come here all scarred up with a smashed paw. He had a rough life. Bernik said that since he came in, he hadn’t been able to relax, so lying down and sleeping at my feet was amazing. This broke through me in a way I did not think possible. I knew that I couldn’t help him amid my own pain, but he was offering his pain for me to help with. So I reached down, put my hand on his head, and whispered, “I got your back, bud. No one on this yard is going to hurt you.” From then on, I made sure that I spent as much time as I could to comfort him, train him, and protect him. Through this relationship, Vic got better, and that was the goal. However, though I thought that I was there for him, it was also the other way around; Vic was there for me. He comforted me when I was down and out. He trained me to be strong and get back up, and protected me from my destructive self. The funny thing was that I believed that when Vic came over to me, he was thinking “that guy is suffering like me; maybe I should help and protect him.”

What PFL did for me is extraordinary. PFL not only saved my life, but it also gave me life.

Interview-8.jpg

Though Vic gave me love, I was still somewhat lost, still believing that I was irredeemable and doomed to a life of constant bad decision-making. Then through PFL came a second angel—you Dr. Roy. With your kindness and untiring passion to see the good in all, in everyone, you amazed me and became for me the role model that I’d never had before. No words can express my full appreciation for what you have done for incarcerated people, me especially. You looked at us not through the eyes of an enemy or through hate, but through the eyes of love, and with respect for our humanity. As a result, you gave us confidence, hope, and purpose.

Now I’m a student on this extension campus inside this prison, and I’m on my way to attaining my dream of obtaining a BA degree. I once thought I was irredeemable, meaning that I thought I had to die first and be reincarnated or something else if I were to have any hope of ever being a good person again. Now, the professors and faculty and students at Cal State LA have taught me that I can take down those walls that I built around my heart. Even if it’s day by day, I can take down those walls, because I am the builder. I don’t need them to protect me from pain, failure, or disappointment, because I’m not inherently bad. I know now that being good is a choice that I’ll be faced with making every day of my life. I once was an advocate of all that’s dark and hate surrounded me with those walls. I promoted the Black Dragon and Vietnamese gangs’ lifestyles to other Vietnamese youth, but now, I encourage them to get their education, to transform their lives and live with hope and goodness.

I’m serving a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole, which means that if the laws do not change or society has no mercy for me, then I will die in prison. “Life Without the Possibility of Parole” is a death sentence—the only difference between it and lethal injection is that Death Row prisoners get a final meal and a team of lawyers. Still, as bleak as my circumstances are, I find myself happier than at any time in my life since childhood. That little Vietnamese kid with his little red wagon that was imprisoned as P24706, today I walk my dog in the evening on the prison yard, and no longer feel the cold concrete walls with their sharp razor-wire, nor the tower with its gunner and Mini-14. Here, it is just me and my dog… and I feel free.


 
Editor’s Postscript:
When the interview was completed at the end of the third meeting, without explanation Tin prostrated himself before Dr. Roy in the middle of the prison yard in front of all the guards and other prisoners. He performed a deeply meaningful ritual, later explaining it in the following way, asking that it be included in this interview to honor the family of Stanko Vuckovic—the man whose life he took.

Tin: I may never have that chance to apologize in person, so I’d like to do this now at least.
I would like to do this in the Vietnamese traditional way.
I am on my knees, and bow my head, prostrating myself, three times.
With each: “I am so sorry, please forgive me.”
I promise for the rest of my life, as a living amends, I will do my best to impact others’ lives for the good in homage of you, your family, and your community. Thank you for allowing me to be honest and express my remorse.

 

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Notes

[1] These numbers, while a bit dated, are provided by the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, https://apscinfo.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/apis-in-ca-prisons/. More up to date details can be found in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s offender data points demographic, comprising the most recent demographic information for those incarcerated in CDCR, https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/docs/Data_Points_Dec_2016.pdf. From December 2016, the “Others” population (which includes American Indian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and Asians, many of whom are Vietnamese) consisted of 8,907 individuals incarcerated in the state system (6.9% of the total population of incarcerated people). Of this number, 598 were born in Vietnam (in December 2014, it was 660). See pp. 10, 17, 85 of the report.

[2] Paws for Life (PFL) is a therapeutic program and unique partnership between the organization Karma Rescue and the California State Prison–LA County that began in 2014. See http://karmarescue.org/paws-for-life/ and also Jackie Fernandez, “CSP-Los Angeles County launches Paws For Life program,” Inside CDCR, 3 July 2014, https://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2014/07/csp-los-angeles-county-launches-paws-for-life-program/.

 

 Tin Nguyen has been incarcerated for nineteen years, serving a Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentence. A son, brother, uncle, and capable of change. He is a student in Cal State LA’s BA program, as well as a dog trainer in the “Paws For Life” dog program at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster.

Bidhan Chandra Roy is an associate professor of English Literature at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the founder of WordsUncaged, a platform for men sentenced to life sentences in California prisons to dialogue and critically engage with the world beyond the prison walls. He is also the faculty director of Cal State LA’s BA program at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster, as well co-chairman of the board of Karma Rescue, an organization that runs the “Paws for Life” dog rescue and training programs in prisons throughout California.

Copyright: © 2018 Tin Nguyen and Bidhan Chandra Roy. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

Articles

Vietnamese Adoptions

Allison Varzally

As part of targeted evacuation efforts from Southeast Asia in 1975, the U.S. government arranged for military and commercial planes to transport Vietnamese children to the United States. In theory, the airlifts simply facilitated adoption proceedings already in motion. Children selected for the airlifts were already paired with suitable American families who eagerly awaited their arrival. And the efforts were bolstered by collaboration with social welfare and adoption agencies such as Holt International, Welcome House, United Catholic Relief Services, Friends for All Children, and Friends of the Children of Vietnam (FCVN). However, in its rushed execution, the program resulted in confusion and tragedy. One of the first official flights, carrying an estimated three hundred children and adult caregivers, exploded in mid-air; only half of the flight’s passengers survived.

The horrific accident only strengthened the resolve of organizers to get children out of Vietnam. While expressing sorrow for the victims of the crash, President Ford insisted, “our mission of mercy must continue…. This tragedy must not deter us but offer new hope for the living.”[1] In prioritizing the plight of Vietnamese children after years of relative inattention, the U.S. government adopted the rhetoric of responsibility long articulated by left-leaning Americans. Admitting the nation’s culpability in the destruction and dissolution of Vietnamese families, officials sought not simply to atone for American sins and relieve the suffering of Vietnamese children, but to control the peace.

Yet Vietnamese would disrupt these efforts and dispute this message, reappearing as refugees who endeavored to have familial reunion within the United States. Seeking to preserve life amidst unfathomable loss, death, and ruin, Vietnamese mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents strategically chose Operation Babylift as a means of assuring the safety of their young kin, hoping they would be able to reunite with them if they were able to migrate to the United States successfully. Many of the children airlifted from Vietnam appeared to have family members who hoped to reclaim them—they were not all orphans. Vietnamese had seized the evacuation as a necessary, if desperate, step in a larger process of migration that could mitigate their grief and disorientation. Those fortunate enough to reach the United States and initiate their plans of reconciliation, however, were confronted with the contrary ambitions of American families, agencies and government officials who viewed adoption and the assimilation of Vietnamese children as both an apology for the nation’s wrongs and affirmation of its material and moral worth. In arguing for their parental rights and introducing Americans to the forms and obligations of the extended Vietnamese family, these refugees rejected American interpretations of the war in favor of their own. Such interpretations had challenged expected performances of Vietnamese women as either helpless victims or scheming enemies, which came to shape how they settled in the United States, how they sustained ties to Vietnam, and even how this would influence future foreign policy.

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California played a leading role in this intense drama that was unfolding across the United States. Not only did Californians, Vietnamese and American, receive and process the largest number of airlifted children, but they also originated and organized the loudest opposition to American adoptions and benevolent representations of its war in Vietnam. In the process, the state provided a foundation for the establishment of Vietnamese communities and reinforced a tradition of protest and trans-pacific relations.

San Francisco’s Presidio, the largest of the reception centers, swiftly mobilized to process children airlifted from Vietnam. Indeed, of the over 2,000 children hastily removed as part of Operation Babylift, more than 1,500 passed through the military installation that was aided by more than 5,400 California volunteers who provided communication, shelter, food, security, and medical assistance. Among those Bay Area residents who answered the call (specifically for those fluent in Vietnamese) were Muoi McConnel, a Vietnamese nurse married to a former U.S. servicemen; Nhu Miller, a Vietnamese-born, European-raised, and American-educated (Barnard and University of California, Berkeley) woman who described herself as a revolutionary in later interviews; and Mai Chaplin, a homemaker of Vietnamese descent. While caring and conversing with children at the Presidio, the trio came to express such surprise that some of the youth did not appear to be orphans in their own right. Such youth had confessed confusion about their whereabouts and a longing for living Vietnamese parents and kin. Muoi asserted that of the twenty-three children whose names she recorded, three reported having two living parents in Vietnam, fourteen asked about their mothers, and two described grandparents residing in the United States.[2] Mai recalled her exchange with two sisters who claimed their parents were alive and well in Qui Nhon. Reportedly, they had placed their daughters—two of their nine children—in a Catholic orphanage whose director agreed to send the girls to the U.S. until they might return to Vietnam.[3]

Dismayed and determined to resolve the seeming problem of the non-orphans, Muoi and Nhu approached U.S. officials who straightaway ignored their appeals for assistance. However, Nhu’s husband, Tom, a Stanford trained lawyer, former staff member of the U.S. State Department, and long advocate for Vietnamese children who had helped establish the Children’s Medical Relief International and the Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in Saigon, listened closely to the women’s concerns and chose to act. Drawing support from a network of California based, anti-war attorneys and the Center for Constitutional Rights,[4] Tom helped file an action, Nguyen Da Yen et al. v. Kissinger et al., in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, charging Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Attorney General Edward Levi, and seven adoption agencies with bringing children to the United States who were not orphans properly released for immigration. Plaintiffs demanded “the accumulation of defendant’s records to determine each child’s adoptive status and enable any living parents to be located,” a process predicated upon halting the adoption proceedings of American families whom they conceded may be “concerned and loving” but “no substitute for biological parents.”[5]

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While expressing sympathy for adoptive families and eschewing political motives, the plaintiffs emphasized the superiority of Vietnamese families, the harm done to displaced Vietnamese children, and proposed the fundamental flaws of the U.S. Government. In its motion for preliminary injunction, lawyers asserted that they did not intend to challenge the wisdom of admitting children during the last days of war, a clarification that seemed to remove the question of child custody from the context of controversy about the war’s closure. However, over the course of the trial, they struggled to maintain an apolitical stance and refrain from a broader commentary about the perceived injustice of the war and the ignorance of American couples. In its complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, the plaintiffs’ attorneys aired their grievances, accusing the government of orchestrating Operation Babylift “to create a climate of opinion favorable to the continuation of unconstitutional and illegal U.S. involvement in the war in South Vietnam to the end of securing from the United States Congress authorization and appropriation of additional funds to militarily support the war, and to provide a cover for United States military intervention.” In other documents, the plaintiffs found fault with adoptive parents, along with the officials and agencies who facilitated their efforts. “It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate,” insisted lead attorney for the Plaintiffs, Nancy Stearns, in a court memo. To further support this reading, she offered the testimony of Joyce Ladner, a sociologist and civil rights activist who studied transracial adoption. Although Ladner acknowledged, “Asians may not experience as much hostility in the predominantly white American society” as African Americans, she believed that “they do experience subtler forms of discrimination.” Additionally, she anticipated how such Vietnamese adoptees would come to “face additional hostility as a result of feelings of anger in many Americans regarding the Vietnam war” and would suffer “a racial identity crisis comparable to that in black children.” Claiming the virtues of Vietnamese families, she concluded that “even if the circumstances to which they return are less economically secure than the American homes they are presently in, emotional security must not be traded for a middle class life style where racial and cultural gaps are so broad and so often ignored.”[6] She portrayed Americans as a group whose false faith in material advantages blinded them to the problems of transracial families. This exposed a broader, leftist opposition to capitalism that had founded the antiwar movement and informed the plaintiff’s case, but which members of the Center for Constitutional Rights strategically preferred to understate.

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 It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate.

In her April 1975 Affidavit, Nhu Miller further elaborated these points. She noted that Americans misunderstood the structure and strength of Vietnamese families, creating an unnecessary and self-serving crisis. Vietnamese practiced an extended system of family so that “if you lost your father, you still have your uncle. If you lose your mother, your aunt will still nurse you.” Rather than asylums, she explained, orphanages were used as places for boarding children during times of economic or political crisis…. Foreign adoption is an alien and repugnant notion to the Vietnamese.” Nhu countered a picture of neglected or absent Vietnamese mothers, chastising “foreigners, who see only orphanages and assume the Vietnamese don’t care for their children, do not hear about mothers struggling alone to care for ten children or women caring for children left in their care permanently who would never consider putting them in an orphanage.”[7] Nhu’s portrait of maternal struggle and adoption disrupted prevailing images of Vietnamese women that had shaped U.S. assertions in South Vietnam. Perpetuating a habit of feminizing Asian nations and casting Asian women as victims or vixens, U.S. media, soldiers, and policy makers alternatively imagined themselves as protecting or punishing a vulnerable, if sometimes treacherous, South Vietnam. Lost within these gendered constructions and justifications of military action were the real Vietnamese women whom Nhu depicted: individuals making tough but deliberate choices amidst arduous circumstances.[8] So confident in her conception of caregiving customs and the will of Vietnamese mothers was Nhu that she and her husband, Tom Miller, long resisted assuming fuller responsibility for Oktober, the son of a Vietnamese woman, A, who had pleaded for their help. Nhu’s mother, BachLan, had first supported the boy, but when she died, Nhu felt compelled to help A “take care of her own child.” Nhu removed Oktober from an orphanage where he spent some of his days after determining its operators “were essentially selling the children.” And when she finally accepted A’s pleas “to take care of him” on a permanent basis and bring him to the United States, Nhu made certain that Oktober sustained a relationship with his Vietnamese mother.[9]

The cases of Vietnamese families who endured separations and sought reunions in the United States seemed to underscore Nhu’s picture of caring Vietnamese kin and Americans’ propensity to sin. Li The Hang, whose work as an interpreter in a U.S. hospital in Vietnam familiarized her with American personnel and regulations, placed two of her five children, Phuong and Holly, with Catholic Charities and begged the organization “to get them out” before conditions deteriorated further in 1975. As she said her farewells, Li The Hang pressed into their hands a photo inscribed with a message intended to reassure and inspire: “My wish is for you to grow up free. We would rather be away from this country and live in freedom then be together under Communism.” When Li and her remaining children arrived in the United States four months later, she began hunting for Phuong and Holly. Despite the reluctance of an Oregon-based foster family to release their charges, the adoption papers they had filed were not yet processed and Li was able to recover her children with the help of a Catholic Priest. During a 2011 interview, she recalled the joy of the trio’s reunion. Her antipathy to Communism not only animated her plans of dividing, migrating, and eventually reuniting her family, but her service to other Vietnamese refugees. After settling and opening a successful restaurant in Decatur, Georgia during the 1980s, the Hangs would sponsor as many as 150 Vietnamese families.[10] Reclaiming her children within a context of virulent anticommunism and diaspora, Li confirmed an American narrative about the downfall and doom of Vietnam. However, her assertion of maternal rights as a refugee sheltered by the United States also underscored the failure of modernization and militarization in South Vietnam; rather than rescued or reprimanded under the discipline of American masculine power—fantasies that propelled American policy in Southeast Asia—Vietnamese women surfaced as independent forces seeking place and persuasion as parents within their new nation. Despite the trauma of dislocation and migration, experiences that many refugees have sublimated with silence, these women spoke out. Their declarations repurposed Vietnamese social norms and cultural types. Vietnamese society had valued women’s reproductive and motherly talents. The war both intensified the importance of and imperiled their duty to protect and prepare the next generation. While men’s contributions to the nation were typically connected with their military service and camaraderie, Vietnamese women demonstrated service by enduring separations from their adult children, especially enlisted sons, and waiting for peace. These gendered interpretations persisted in postwar Vietnam. Women were honored for surrendering and mourning their lost sons, a form of reverence that elided the less passive and broader roles they had played in combat and in daily life by managing households, businesses, farms, and family.[11]

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Like the Hangs, many refugees replayed and refined Vietnamese constructions of gender and family within the United States using the lawsuit spearheaded by Californians to reunite them with their dependent relative. After the death of one son and one daughter in 1968, Nguyen Thi Phuc feared for the future of her remaining children. “If I don’t let [my sons] go out, then when they grow up the boy have to go military, had to go fighting. They die. I know that,” she stated during court testimony. Resisting the trope of sacrificial mother and risking retribution as disloyal to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Thi Phuc sent her boys to the United States in 1972. Two years later, she heard “the bomb and rocket shoot very close to Saigon,” which led to her placing her daughters in the care of a Mr. Jacobs who agreed to bring the pair safely to the United States. Thi Phuc insisted that she had never signed relinquishment papers and secured the promise of Mr. Jacobs that “if I stay in my country, later where I stay I be safe, he return my children to me.” However, eighteen months later, when she arrived at Fort Chafee, Arkansas—a domestic military base much like California’s Camp Pendleton that processed Southeast Asian refugees—and attempted to recover her four children, she was faced with significant hurdles. Her sons’ foster parents wished to adopt them, rather than to surrender the boys. Despite her queries to immigration officials, the United States Catholic Conference, and local press, she could not determine her daughters’ whereabouts.[12]

Dang Thi Hao showed similar resolve and met similar hindrances as she solicited assistance in winning back the two-year old daughter, whom a Catholic organization had brought to the United States, from Camp Pendleton, California officials. Fear, not neglect, prompted Thi Hao to yield the girl. She pleaded, but her pleas soon fell on deaf ears. One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.”[13] Char Thi Lan also portrayed American bureaucrats, specifically those employed at the California Department of Health and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as anything but helpful. Despite her appeals, she had failed to recover her four-month-old niece whose mother had not consented to the airlift.[14] In these three cases, and others beyond, Vietnamese women not only found fault with the American government and demanded reflection on its responsibilities to refugees, but desperately tried to configure their authority and relationship to the United States through intense parental terms. They drew upon a respect for mothers in Vietnamese culture, while criticizing a war and regime that had compromised their ability to fulfill that particular function. Rather than shore up the Socialist Republic of Vietnam by gifting their children, these women had dispatched the youth to the United States where they now expected to retrieve and enact their maternal powers.

One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.”

Adoption agencies and adoptive parents, including those in Cupertino, California who organized the Council for the Rights of Adoptive Families to protect their interests, had come to counter that Vietnamese children were legitimately abandoned, suffering, and available, that agencies had followed proper protocols, and that “the lawsuit was politically motivated and had nothing to do with the children.”[15] In their defense, they outlined the chaotic conditions of a war-torn Vietnam, the free will of Vietnamese mothers who chose, rather than were coerced, to relinquish their children, as well as the opportunities that these Vietnamese children would come to possess in the United States.

Confronted by conflicting reports and divisive testimonies, the Judge ultimately ruled that “the case was not properly a class action suit,” due to the fact that “each child’s situation [proved] so individual that common questions did not predominate over individual issues.” He represented the cases as being so complex and dizzyingly unique to defy the kind of generalization the plaintiffs desired. While acknowledging the confusion and occasional duplicity that had shaped the removal of Vietnamese children, he expressed skepticism about the plaintiff’s broad advocacy of reunification: “While beyond the scope of this court’s inquiry in this litigation, it is possible, in the individual circumstances peculiar to certain children, that the best interest of the children would be to not return them to their biological parents. It is not necessary to ruminate too extensively to imagine many situations where, for emotional, psychological, medical, or other reasons, a child would be better off remaining with the adoptive parents.”[16] Disappointed, but not dissuaded, select Vietnamese families initiated and often won individual custody battles in state courts—sometimes with the aid of Tom Miller and the California team who reached out to Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. and pressed the State Department to locate families in Vietnam seeking lost relatives.[17]

California, once a place of concentrated social protest where Asian immigrants had come to historically struggle and settle, soon assured that concerns of cultural autonomy, responsibility, and imperialism that were once raised during the American War in Vietnam were sustained. Debates about the constitution and influence of Vietnamese and American families exposed the long and difficult entanglements wrought by American power in Southeast Asia. As time passed and the Vietnam War became a memory to implore rather than a war to fight, Vietnamese children were reunited with their biological kin, adopted by American families, or belatedly invited to immigrate as young Amerasians. They would soon mature and become actors, as well as symbols of discussions of being representative of war legacies, constructions of ethno-racial communities, and proud patterns of assimilation.

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Notes

  • This article is adapted from Allison Varzally, Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).  

[1] “Ford Vows to Continue Operation Babylift,” Los Angeles Times (4 April 1972): 4.

[2] RG 276, Box 11 Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 19, 20 May 1975, RG 276 United States District Court of California, San Francisco, National Archives at San Francisco (RG 276, NARA-SF). Note, the author accessed court records stored at the National Archives in two visits separated by two years. During this interval, the court records were reorganized and the box numbers changed. Box numbers in the 500 range reflect the most recent iteration.

[3] Dana Sachs, The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010); Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 25 June 1975, Box 11, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[4] The Center for Constitutional Rights was established in 1966 by civil rights activists seeking to advance popular, progressive causes. https://ccrjustice.org/home/what-we-do/historic-cases?page=19, accessed 11 January 2018.

[5] Plaintiff’s Memo in Support of Entry of Preliminary Injunction Incorporating Provision of Consent Order and Petition for Rehearing and Suggestion for Rehearing En Banc, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[6] Ibid., Complaint for Declaratory Relief, RG-276, NARA-SF; Affidavit of Joyce Ladner, 20 January 1976, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[7] Affidavit of Tran Tuong Nhu (28 April 1975), RG 276, NARA-SF.

[8] Heather Marie Stur labeled the competing types of Vietnamese women conceived by Americans as “damsels in distress” (those in need of rescue from communist aggression) and “dragon ladies” (those whose duplicitous behavior compromised U.S. ambitions and invited censure). See Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 176.

[9] Oktober is the boy’s “Berkeley, California” name. Author’s Interview with Nhu Miller 29 May 2012; “A” is a pseudonym for Oktober’s birth mother.

[10] Author’s Interview with Le Thi Hang, 13 October 2011.

[11] Helle Rydstrom, “Gendered Corporeality and Bare Lives: Local Sacrifices and Sufferings during the Vietnam War” Signs 37.2 (January 2012): 275-299; Lan Duong, Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012); Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, Memory is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009.)

[12] Reporter’s Transcript, Box 12, RG 276, NARA-SF. Although excluded from the specific class represented by Tom Miller because the children had arrived in the United States earlier than 1975, their stories resonated and Nguyen Thi Phuc’s had stepped forward because of the law suit, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[13] Affidavit of Thomas Miller, July 1975 box 6, Folder 2, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[14] Certificate of Attorney, 24 March 1976, Box 33, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[15] Cherie Clark, After Sorrow Comes Joy: One Woman’s Struggle to Bring Hope to Thousands of Children in Vietnam and India (Westminster, CO: Lawrence and Thomas Publishing House, 2000).

[16] Nguyen Da Yen v. Kissinger. 528 F.2d 1194. U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Cir. 5 Nov. 1975. The Judge’s concerns about the emotional costs of searches likely shaped his decision to seal the case files rather than appoint special masters to review the files. This effectively frustrated the efforts of plaintiff’s attorneys, in cooperation with the International Red Cross and Vietnamese government, to help families in Vietnam locate children in the United States. Author’s correspondence with Tom Miller, 11 July 2015.

[17] The County of Adams, State of Colorado, Dependency Action No. J6-5679-N; The People of the State of Colorado in the interest of Le Thanh Tung, aka Vo Huy Tung, aka Hoang Tung, aka Brice Zenk; Duong Bich Van v. John T. Dempsey, individually and as director of Social Services and the Michigan Department of Social Services and David and Barbara Pederson, jointly and Severally Civil Action No. 76-140 499 (23 June 1976); Peter Brennan, “Tug of Love: A Boy’s Tough Choice Between Two Mothers,” US Magazine (28 June 1977): 71-73; Le Thi Sang v. Knight, California Superior Court, San Joaquin County, docket No. 125898.

 

Allison Varzally is a professor of history at California State University, Fullerton. Her publications include Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring Outside Ethnic Lines (University of California Press, 2008), which won the Theodore Saloutos Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, and most recently Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (University of North Carolina Press). She is Book Review Editor of Southern California Quarterly.

Copyright: © 2018 Allison Varzally. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

Articles

Welcoming the Stranger: Faith Communities and Immigration

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Alexia Salvatierra

In the thirty-fifth chapter of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible, the writer lays out a remedy for a social and legal problem. In ancient Israel, the penalty for murder was death, “a life for a life.” Family members of the slain person normally carry out the sentence.  However, the writers of Numbers recognized that it would not be fair for accidental killers to receive the same punishment as those who kill intentionally. Raging family members could not be expected to stop midstream and investigate; the community is instructed to create cities of refuge where the accused can be kept safe until they can receive a fair hearing. The cities of refuge are the solution for people who committed a crime and received an unfair penalty.

This ancient remedy is the root of the sanctuary church tradition. Since the fourth century in England, churches have offered protection and shelter to those accused of a crime but who would be likely to be punished unfairly if left unprotected. Christians and churches along the Underground Railroad followed this example, as did Christians in Nazi Germany who protected Jews and churches in the 1960s who protected draft-dodgers avoiding service in Vietnam. The most prominent movement using the term “sanctuary” in the twentieth century was the Central American sanctuary movement of the 1980s and 1990s.

In Tucson, Arizona, Reverend John Fife of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and Quaker leader Jim Corbett encountered Central Americans running for their lives from death squads who were targeting not only revolutionaries but also Christian leaders of justice movements. These asylum-seekers were facing different criteria than individuals escaping Communist countries; the United States was an ally and funder of the governments supporting the death squads. When Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were documenting government-sponsored massacres, a very small percentage of Central Americans were winning asylum cases. The sanctuary movement began at Southside Presbyterian Church in 1982, under Reverend Fife’s leadership, and ended up involving around 500 congregations across the United States. By risking legal penalties themselves, these congregations brought public attention and added credibility to the Central Americans’ testimonies. The sanctuary movement changed hearts and minds, contributing significantly to major policy changes in the asylum system (such as the awarding of temporary protected status to Central Americans in 1990) and in stopping the funding which sustained the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. While the sanctuary movement was infiltrated and the leaders faced a grand jury trial in 1986, only two leaders received prison sentences for illegal transportation and six others were convicted of alien smuggling with suspended sentences; none were convicted for the actual provision of shelter.

While a young seminary student in Berkeley during the Central American sanctuary movement, I belonged to University Lutheran Chapel, one of the first sanctuary churches. During this time, my husband and I also welcomed a refugee from Central America into our home, which was a formative experience, displaying the potential power of the church as a force for social justice.

Years later in 2006, I became one of the leaders of a new sanctuary movement. The Sensenbrenner Bill had passed the House of Representatives in December of 2005;[1] if it had also passed the Senate, it would have made it a felony to be undocumented or to help or serve an undocumented person. Shock waves went through immigrant communities and congregations alike. For many years, the U.S. immigration system had already proven to be ineffective, illogical, and inhumane. For example, since 1995, the number of visas available for unskilled labor has been a flat limit of 5,000 per year; since the 1800s, the U.S. has imported 70 to 80 percent of our farm labor.[2] The numbers do not match and therefore as a result, the majority of those whose labor feeds the country cannot enjoy the benefits of legal residency.

Faith communities felt compelled to respond to their plight, both from compassion and because our traditions are clear about the call to do so.

This broken system has created a situation over the past thirty years in which undocumented immigrants are woven into the fabric of communities in many regions of our country. When they suddenly saw themselves as potential felons, the anguish, anger, and terror became overwhelming. Faith communities felt compelled to respond to their plight, both from compassion and because our traditions are clear about the call to do so. There are ninety-two texts from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures calling us to welcome the stranger. The Sensenbrenner Bill also put church leaders directly in danger; it was written so loosely that churches could have been liable for the provision of both humanitarian and religious services to the strangers in our midst. Faith leaders throughout the country struggled to figure out the best response to the crisis.

Then, in his Ash Wednesday sermon of 2006, as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles at the time, Cardinal Roger Mahony called on Roman Catholics across the nation to continue to minister to everyone regardless of their immigration status… even if they were to go to prison for it.[3] Religious leaders from different faith traditions in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles decided that it was time for a new sanctuary movement. We wanted to replicate the impact of the late twentieth century movement—to call attention to the brokenness of our immigration system and the need for reform rather than unjust punishment. We believed that the willingness of immigrants and non-immigrants to engage in a potentially sacrificial partnership could have the capacity to again change hearts and minds, and to ultimately affect legislation. However, we also realized that the situation was very different than the ’80s. We realized that we did not have the capacity to shelter millions of people indefinitely. Nor did most of the undocumented immigrant population want to live in churches; unlike the Central American refugees they were established in the U.S.—complete with jobs, homes, and children in school. The strategy we developed focused on inviting families whose stories would communicate the brokenness of our system to enter publicly into sanctuary, taking risks and making sacrifices for the sake of a greater goal. At its height in 2007, coalitions of congregations in thirty-seven cities were participating in some form. While Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago kicked off the movement, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice of California became the national lead agency for the new sanctuary movement, and the New York City New Sanctuary Coalition served as a national model. This was a movement that also went beyond Christian congregations—there were too many individual leaders and congregations to name: Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Unitarian, Jewish, and Muslim.

The new sanctuary movement received massive publicity, and an equivalent bill to Sensenbrenner’s did not pass the Senate. By June 2007, a comprehensive immigration bill with strong bipartisan support was polling at 75 percent in support. We thought that we would win and our families could go home. Unfortunately, the calls to legislators were 50 to 1 against the bill. The majority of Americans usually do not call their representative unless the proposed legislation directly affects them. Most of those whose answers to the surveys were positively in favor of the bipartisan immigration reform bill did not call their legislators and those who thought immigration negatively affected their lives called repeatedly. There was not enough political will to pass immigration reform.

The new sanctuary movement changed direction and worked on a temporary alternative to reform, seeking a regulatory safety net that could soften the impact of the jagged edges of the broken system while the immigrant rights movement continued to strive for legislation over the long haul. Immigration field office directors have prosecutorial discretion to delay deportation for specific cases; they can even grant work permits and temporary authorization to reside in the U.S.  Over the next ten years, the sanctuary movement (in collaboration with other immigrant rights advocates) pushed for national criteria for the granting of deferred deportation and temporary permissions. In August 2010, the “Morton Memo,” named such after then-director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) John Morton, established a new policy that prioritized immigrants who represented threats to public safety for detention and deportation, and authorized deferred deportation for immigrants who met certain qualifications. This gave annual protection from deportation to tens of thousands of people who met  the criteria, which amounted to having ties to residential U.S. citizens, making contributions to U.S. society, and/or having dangerous conditions in their countries of origin. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was the extension of this logic by President Obama’s 2012 Executive Order, prioritizing this for a group instead of requiring a case-by-case process. DACA, which gave 800,000 “Dreamers” temporary authorization to reside and work in the U.S., built on the foundation laid by the Morton Memo.

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The sanctuary movement also successfully advocated for the creation of sensitive zones where ICE would not enter without a judicial warrant, including congregations, schools, and hospitals. In 2014, Church World Service took on a coordination role and the new sanctuary movement experienced a resurgence of families living in churches publicly. Over the years, the new movement developed a high level of expertise in using the new regulations to enable these families to have their deportation orders suspended or removed.

Since the election of President Donald Trump, somewhere between 800 and 1,000 congregations have declared sanctuary across the country—double the size of any sanctuary movement to date. New coalitions continue to spring up weekly. However, the vast majority of these congregations do not have families taking shelter inside them. Any standard for prioritization of enforcement is gone; the new administration’s Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvement Executive Order treats immigration offenses as crimes equal in importance to other serious criminal offenses. Living inside a church is, in effect, an indeterminate sentence of house arrest and a potential financial disaster for a family. Publicly living inside a church can invite bullying for the children and death threats for the adults. While a few immigrant families make this choice, the more common form of sanctuary is private. Individuals or families move into a church building or a private home to escape an address that ICE knows, ideally in a community where they can start over again and hide in the shadows. Their stay in sanctuary is temporary; as soon as possible they move into their own lodging and a new life in greater obscurity. These private cases, however, do not serve to change hearts and minds of legislative officials or those in the wider U.S. culture, nor do they offer any real solution to the broader problem. Member coalitions of the interfaith PICO organizing network have been particularly involved in developing private sanctuary options as well as engaging their congregations in other aspects of sanctuary work.


Beyond Sanctuary: Advocacy and Accompaniment

Although a movement had been renewed, or reborn, the failures to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 and the Dream Act (multiple attempts in 2001, 2005, and 2007) could be seen as evidence that the coalition supporting immigrant rights lacked the breadth and depth necessary to create the political will for reform. There are too few American citizens who feel that the lack of humane immigration law affects them personally.  At this point, evangelical leaders in various places in the country, including Willow Creek leadership in Chicago and several megachurch leaders in Orange County began to ask, “What role might the church play today in broadening and deepening this coalition because of our mandate to care passionately about people who are not ‘us’?” This group reasoned that if the church does not care passionately about the well being of all people, including immigrants, then the church is not faithful to Jesus. We realized that the evangelical churches were uniquely positioned to make a difference in the stalemate. Evangelical churches are passionate in their discipleship; and evangelicals are known for being willing to make great sacrifices for obedience to God and for mission. The international Hispanic community is one of the fastest growing evangelical constituencies in the world. The 2014 study by the Pew Research Center “Religion in Latin America” states that the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are is now estimated to be over 50 percent evangelical. In the U.S., immigrants from Latin America and Asia are the fastest growing population within evangelical churches. Evangelical churches are also often associated with the Republican Party because of their stance on abortion. As a result, they are uniquely equipped to work on organizing conservatives to work with liberals to pass immigration reform.

In 2011, I was one of the co-founders of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), along with Jenny Yang from World Relief, with significant leadership provided by a diverse set of national evangelical organizations and denominations, including Sojourners, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, Esperanza USA, and the Christian Community Development Association. (The National Immigration Forum served as a resource for the EIT.) The EIT became the broadest coalition of evangelical leaders for justice since the slavery abolition movement of the mid-nineteenth century. At its height, the coalition engaged immigrant and non-immigrant evangelicals in peer partnership; the signatories to its principles included famous megachurch pastors, denominational leaders, seminary presidents, and traditional evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.[4] When the Table was formed, polls showed that 83 percent of white evangelicals were against immigration reform. Just three years later, however, polls in 2014 showed 72 percent of white evangelicals were for immigration reform. The EIT has also given birth to G92, a movement based in Christian colleges and universities, and Bibles, Business, and Badges, a coalition of law enforcement, business leaders, and church leaders supporting immigration reform. While there is still strong conservative support for immigration reform, the advent of the Trump movement has certainly weakened that movement—both through the stimulation of strong nativist impulses and the fear created in moderate Republicans.

When the new Executive Orders appeared in January, many of us who had been involved with the EIT knew that evangelicals who had voted for Trump might still be interested in standing with immigrants in the face of the unjust policies and practices which separate families and destroy dreams. The leadership of the Christian Community Development Association and Sojourners, along with the National Evangelical Latino Coalition, leading African-American organizations like the National African-American Clergy Network, the Progressive Baptists denomination, and the Christian-Muslim dialogue organization Shoulder2Shoulder came together around what we called the Matthew 25 Pledge. In Matthew chapter 25 of the Christian New Testament, Jesus says that our welcome, or lack of welcome, for strangers is the same as welcoming, or not welcoming, him. Signatories to the Matthew 25 Pledge agree to protect and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus.[5] Immigrants are not the only vulnerable people potentially covered under the pledge; the Matthew 25 website has resources for standing with immigrants, young people of color experiencing discrimination in the criminal justice system, and Muslims experiencing discrimination as immigrants, refugees, or citizens. Matthew 25 has a signal committee of leaders for the purpose of sounding a national call to action if needed.

In Southern California, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 has become a vital coalition of evangelical and moderate mainline Protestant congregations in which immigrant churches, Millennial Latino leaders, multicultural churches, and primarily Anglo congregations have engaged in a broad range of advocacy and accompaniment activities. Matthew 25/Mateo 25 SoCal has actively educated congregations, trained leaders, and joined the broader movement in advocating for policies which protect and support immigrants, such as the Dream Act and public sanctuary legislation. It has also met with ICE leadership for dialogue, advocating for individual cases of egregious injustice, partnering immigrant and non-immigrant churches to provide legal resources and spiritual/psychological support to families facing deportation, and helping with family plans to care for citizen children whose parents are deported.

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Our church partnerships with individual family cases are fueling the exchange of hope and passion in ways that grow participation in the movement. Two to three churches can handle the needs of a family, with one providing emotional and spiritual support and the others providing financial and professional support—allowing for many more families to be served than the typical model of getting everyone in a network to work on every case. The two to three congregations that accompany that family can then call on the resources of the broader network as needed.

Recently, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 SoCal created a national campaign to support Pastor Noe Carias, a Guatemalan immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 13 after escaping kidnapping. After being deported multiple times before he turned 21 years old, he eventually married a U.S. citizen and had two children, managed a construction business and became an Assemblies of God pastor, founding a thriving church in Echo Park. In his attempt to have his deportation orders removed so that his qualifying cases could be considered, he was detained for two months in Adelanto—a detention center in the Mojave Desert known for its various inhumane conditions,. Brave New Films produced a documentary on Pastor Carias’s situation, which has gone out widely through social media.[6] The Anglo General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God (the fastest growing Pentecostal denomination in the world, with 3.5 adherents in the U.S.) went to the White House to advocate for Pastor Carias, who was released 22 September 2017, even while his case continues.[7]

Matthew 25 and the interfaith sanctuary movement collaborate closely without adherence to the partisan lines that currently divide the country. In doing so, they stand on common ground in the defense of those who suffer unjustly.

In Southern California, leaders from the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. developed another accompaniment and advocacy mechanism, which is particularly focused on a group targeted by the current administration. The unaccompanied migrant children and youth who have arrived seeking asylum from Central America are a particular target of the Executive Orders. The situation in the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is especially difficult currently, with the Marasalvatrucha functioning an international mafia that survives from the proceeds of gun, drug, and human trafficking, as well as the extortion of small businesses (over $600 million USD a year). They tell young men that they have three choices—join, run, or die. If they join, they have to show that they are serious by killing a family member (per the reports we have been recently hearing from specific youth). Girls are expected to become “girlfriends of the gang.” Younger children are targeted for kidnapping and selling to get small business owners to pay the daily “renta” (literally, rent payment). In the increasing geographic area targeted by the Mara, the police are corrupt, and controlled. One woman recently shared that she was raped repeatedly by a group of Mara and police when she complained to the police about the threats and extortion. Unaccompanied children and youth who pass a credible fear test at the border (about 60 percent) have historically been allowed to be investigated by a special asylum office which determines whether they meet the criteria for asylum (which is the same as the criteria for refugee status—valid fear of violent persecution in one’s home country as a result of race, gender, political opinion, religious belief, etc.).

In November of 2017, the State Department made an announcement ending the potential for that designation for Central American children and stopping the option of processing them through a refugee center in Costa Rica. The current administration has also targeted sponsors of undocumented children, often targeting extended family members who agree to care for children without compensation while the undocumented children are processed through the court procedures, which permits them to be free from incarceration. Beyond this, the administration has detained and deported children who turn 18 years old even if their court cases are in process; they have cut off all federal funding for legal assistance and have charged non-profit legal services providers with malpractice if they coach families on representing themselves; and they have charged family members in the U.S. with human trafficking if they helped with the cost of a smuggler to bring the child safely. (A young girl on the road heading north without any protection is very likely to be raped by Mexican police and criminals.) We recently had scheduled a youth to speak at an event; he was detained, deported and shot on arrival. His mother came to speak instead; she could not speak; she could only cry.

The current administration’s enforcement policies trash the twenty-year development of rational and humane regulatory policies, creating instead various levels of individual and family destruction, which is difficult to bear.

In 2014, when the numbers of these children and youth began to climb, we started the Guardian Angels Project, engaging church volunteers in accompanying these children and their families in court. We wear brightly colored t-shirts with an image of a guardian angel and we refer these families to legal assistance and social services while monitoring the courts to ensure that their rights are respected. When we began, the courts were regularly practicing “rocket docket,” rushing the cases through whether or not legal representation was available. Our presence stopped that practice within months. We also protect families from the unscrupulous lawyers and notary publics who take their money without providing effective representation (on the principle that a deported person cannot take them to court for fraud). We urge the families instead to use reputable resources, even if they have to wait in line. The Guardian Angels Project began in Southern California but has since spread to Chicago and is in the process of development in Atlanta and Houston.

Other faith leaders and networks also minister to these children, youth, and their families. The United Methodist Church organizes “welcome centers” in some of their churches, and provides a summer camp experience specifically focused on them and their needs, whereas the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches provide the backbone of the Guardian Angels Project. The Episcopal Church supports and advocates for these families as well. All of us participate in the Southern California-based coalition UCARE (Unaccompanied Central American Refugee Empowerment), an association of faith leaders, community organizations, and legal services providers who are concerned about this situation, which is coordinated by CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.)


Where from here?

The faith-based movement for immigrant rights and immigration reform is the one of the best-kept secrets in the country. In spite of ongoing press, most Americans still do not know that a diverse and significant group of faith leaders in this country, regardless of their political party affiliation, care passionately about justice for immigrants targeted unfairly by the current administration. At times, belonging to this group can feel like Moses, so close to the promised land of immigration reform and fair policies, and yet regularly sent back into the desert. The current administration’s enforcement policies trash the twenty-year development of rational and humane regulatory policies, creating instead various levels of individual and family destruction, which is difficult to bear. The recent abandonment of the DACA youth (children and youth who have had special regulatory status because they were brought here as children and have already demonstrated their actual and potential contribution to this society) is just one instance of this kind of senseless viciousness.

However, every aggressive step by this administration creates a stronger reaction. Recently, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 organized a press conference to support the Dreamers at Fuller Theological Seminary, led by the Latino Pastors’ networks of Southern California and attended by sixty Latino Christian leaders and evangelical Dreamers. Many of these people had never come out publicly before to stand for a justice issue. The sleeping giant of the immigrant evangelical churches is waking up and awakening other evangelical churches in the process. When all fourteen of the Hispanic Superintendents of Assemblies of God districts went to Dr. Wood, General Superintendent, asking for help in advocating for Pastor Carias, they obtained a positive response, which has historic significance.

Those who have labored in the vineyard of faith-rooted social justice for many years are encouraged by the growing breadth and depth of the movement—even if it is  still in its early stages. And so in our advocacy and labors for the undocumented among us, including undocumented Californians, we resonate with the eloquent words of St. Paul in 2 Corinthians in the Christian New Testament: We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

 

Notes

[1] Titled the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005” (H.R. 4437), https://www.congress.gov/bill/109th-congress/house-bill/04437.

[2] https://www.doleta.gov/agworker/report/major.cfm.

[3] Teresa Watanabe, “Immigrants Gain the Pulpit,” Los Angeles Times, 1 March 2006, http://articles.latimes.com/2006/mar/01/local/me-mahony1.

[4] Southern California signatories included the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, the largest evangelical seminary west of the Rockies, and megachurch pastors Kenton Beshore of the 18,000 member Mariners Church in Irvine, Dave Gibbons of the 11,000 member New Song Church, Jerry Dirmann of The Rock in Anaheim, Tim Celek of the Crossing in Costa Mesa, Jim Tolle of Church on the Way in Los Angeles, and Greg Waybright of Pasadena’s Lake Avenue Community Church.

[5] http://www.matthew25pledge.com/.

[6] https://www.bravenewfilms.org/pastornoe.

[7] Jessica Rice, “Pastor Detained During Immigration Appointment Released Nearly 2 Months Later,” NBC4, 22 September 2017, https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Echo-Park-Pastor-Detained-Release-446835973.html.

Reverend Alexia Salvatierra is an ordained Lutheran Pastor, the co-author of Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World, affiliate Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and adjunct for five other Christian academic institutions as well as an international trainer and consultant. She has been organizing churches to engage in social justice for thirty-five years, and has been a co-founder of multiple immigration initiatives.

Copyright: © 2018 Alexia Salvatierra. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Black Life in Adelanto

Pierre_1_edit

Image adapted from Flickr user Alex Proimos.

Jemima Pierre

My first trip to the GEO Group’s Adelanto Detention Center, the privately-run prison facility located deep inland in Southern California’s San Bernardino County, was to meet with a Haitian asylum seeker, Mr. Clement.[1] Mr. Clement had entered the U.S. from Mexico and had been in detention for nine months. Earlier that summer, he participated in a hunger strike that brought together Central American and Haitian asylum seekers demanding better treatment in Adelanto. It was through this strike that he and some of the other detained Haitian men had garnered some attention. And through a series of legal and activist connections—connections stretching from local immigration rights organizers through Florida, Haiti, and back to Los Angeles—I heard of Mr. Clement and faced, for the first time, the travesty of detention for Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers in Southern California.

Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers are a growing population within detention centers all over the U.S. Southwest. Numbers vary, but there are estimates of thousands of noncriminal Haitians incarcerated, with the largest population in Otay Mesa, Arizona. Haitian migration to these parts is relatively new, beginning with a trickle arriving early 2016 to thousands today. (Mr. Clement said that there were about thirty to fifty other Haitian men, as well as a small number of Africans, detained in his jail block. He was not sure of the numbers held in other blocks, or of how many Haitian women are being held in the women’s wing of Adelanto.) This migration is also unusual. It reflects a new pattern for Haitian migrants, who originally traveled the direct route over the Caribbean Sea to the eastern U.S., and settled in metropolitan centers such as Miami and New York, cities with large Caribbean and African immigrant populations. This new pattern of migration means a more than 7,000-mile trek over land from Brazil through South and Central America, into Mexico and, finally, crossing one of the borders into the U.S. Southwest.

Mr. Clement’s journey to the U.S. was not an easy one. But his story is similar to that of other Haitian migrants in Southern California. He left Haiti for the Dominican Republic and later traveled to Brazil. He was in Brazil for eight months, working odd jobs, barely surviving. Life in Brazil was precarious for Mr. Clement as it was for other Haitian men and women. Brazil, already known for its long history of anti-Black racism, was almost unbearable for Haitians, who are perceived as “too” Black, and often suffered racist violence.[2] Many Haitians have decided to leave Brazil, risking their lives to make the treacherous trek to the United States where they have family. Similarly, from Brazil, Mr. Clement traveled by land through Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. The journey took more than three months, interrupted by arrests (for example, Nicaraguan officials arrested Haitians on site and jailed them for days) and a lack of funds. Occasionally, Haitian migrants would claim to be from an African country in order not to be harassed by officials in some Central American states. Mr. Clement spoke of the difficulty of the journey through Central America including having friends and fellow travelers die in the Columbian forests, drowning as they crossed rivers, or being robbed by local bandits. He said Honduras[3] provided something of a reprieve—a small community in Choluteca became one of the first groups to treat the Haitian travelers as family. Tijuana was the only other place in his travels where Mr. Clement felt he was treated with kindness.

He said Honduras provided something of a reprieve—a small community in Choluteca became one of the first groups to treat the Haitian travelers as family. Tijuana was the only other place in his travels where Mr. Clement felt he was treated with kindness.

Mr. Clement spent more than a month in Tijuana, waiting for an appointment date from the Mexican government to cross the border into the U.S.[4] When Mr. Clement finally approached the San Ysidro border crossing he was immediately arrested. He was surprised to find that his initial immigration interview was conducted by a Haitian-American border patrol officer—in Haitian Creole (kreyòl ayisyen). The officer was intimidating, Mr. Clement said. He repeatedly accused Mr. Clement of being a Haitian gang member who was running away from rivals, a claim Mr. Clement denied. After Mr. Clement was processed he was sent to a small holding cell. The cell was not meant for more than three or four people but was packed with at least thirty individuals. The holding cell had no window or bed. Most people slept sitting up while some slept on mats. The prisoners could not shower or brush their teeth. They didn’t know how long migrants were held there, but Mr. Clement believed that it was around five days. (Other Haitian migrants confirmed these facts.) After those five days, they were moved to actual jail cells in another prison—in San Diego (whose name he and the others do not know). After three days there, the migrants and asylum seekers were put in prison jumpsuits, shackled with chains at the waist, wrists, and ankles, and placed on a bus for the more than six-hour drive to the Adelanto Detention Center.

Mr. Clement and his colleagues discussed their treatment in the U.S.—from border guards to prison guards—as condescending and inhumane and they all stated that they were not expecting to be treated like criminals the moment they crossed the border. They described the humiliation of not being able to use the toilet on the long bus trip to Adelanto. Some people urinated on themselves while others asked their fellow prisoners to unzip their pants to remove their penises so they could urinate where they sat.

The men described their months-long stay at Adelanto as torture. The men recounted being kept indoors most of the time, and allowed outdoors once a week but only for a very short period. They were not allowed to sleep more than a few hours at a time. For example, when guards ordered the inmates into their small rooms at 11 p.m., they had to wake up at 1 a.m. for a “head count.” After ordering everyone back to their rooms, the guards woke them up again at 4 or 5 a.m. for breakfast. The lights in the cells were never turned off—which, according to one former Haitian detainee, affected those on the top bunks even more—and the detention center was always freezing cold. In addition, some of the Haitians complained of guards using racial slurs against them, calling them “fucking blacks” and “Haitian trash.”

At Adelanto, Haitians have had larger bond amounts (ranging anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000) placed on them to secure their release than immigrant prisoners elsewhere in the U.S. And until recently, very few Haitians have been able to bond out of Adelanto and few have won their asylum cases. A colleague who currently conducts research at Adelanto suggested that the denial rate for Haitian asylum cases there was almost 100%. At the same time, despite the denial rates, the asylum seekers are forced to serve extended periods in detention before their deportation. Mr. Clement spoke of Adelanto as “sucking us dry.”

I know that this prison is private business, and that this body [he gestures to his chest] is worth $140 per day for Adelanto. So they hold us for as long as they can. They give us high bonds that we cannot pay. They change our asylum hearing dates. They even force those who do not want asylum to claim asylum so they can keep them longer. When they cannot make more money out of us, then they deport us quickly.

Indeed, reporter Kate Morrissey argued that as of November 2016, “detaining Haitians… in immigration holding facilities is costing American taxpayers an estimated $379,380 per day.”[5] That number is greater now. Mr. Clement and some of his friends describe a number of African immigrants and asylum seekers who, having been detained for months without hope, attempted suicide.

Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk interdicts Haitian migrants

The Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk crew interdicts a group of Haitian migrants July 11, 2017, approximately 22 miles south of Great Inagua, Bahamas.

Compared to those coming from Central America and Mexico, the detention of Haitian migrants and asylum seekers in the U.S. Southwest is relatively recent.[6] When Haitian migrants first began in appear at the U.S.-Mexico border in small groups in early 2016,[7] they were allowed into the U.S. through what is called a “humanitarian parole,” given a three-year temporary pass and released to family members. However, by late September 2016, and as the numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers increased exponentially, the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security put new arrivals in “expedited removal proceedings,” which means that they could be—and were—detained in prisons, especially if they have asylum claims.

How did so many Haitian people end up at the U.S.-Mexico border and, ultimately, at the Adelanto Detention Center and other facilities throughout the U.S. Southwest? In the increasing coverage given to this recent wave of Haitian migrants, the story seems simple: Haitians traveled to Brazil under humanitarian visas after the 2010 earthquake, and later were recruited to Brazil as a cheap labor source while the country prepared to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Since then, Brazil has been beset by severe economic retrenchment, forcing many Haitians to leave for the U.S.

Yet there is much more to this. Migrants leave Haiti for economic reasons, but also because of gang-related persecution, political instability, domestic abuse, and extreme homophobia.[8] The country has also suffered from a long history of foreign military interventions, including ten interventions by the U.S. since the end of the nineteenth century. The U.S. also occupied Haiti twice in the twentieth century, the longest being the nineteen-year military occupation from 1915-1934. Most recently, Haiti has been under a militarized foreign occupation since February 2004, when the U.S., Canada, and France sponsored a coup d’état to oust its popularly elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide.[9] The coup d’état led to a short military occupation by U.S. forces, which was later sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council when they approved a “peacekeeping” mission in Haiti.[10] The military wing of the mission was headed by Brazil for more than a decade.[11] The occupation of Haiti has also added to the country’s political instability, undermining Haitian democracy and self-determination and challenging sovereignty. It has also led to massive suffering: Fall 2010, not long after the earthquake January of that year that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Nepalese troops brought cholera to Haiti. It induced an epidemic that has sickened more than a million Haitians and killed between 10,000 and 30,000.[12] Accountability has not been forthcoming. The UN has refused to admit its culpability and the Haitian people have had no avenue for redress.

When we met, Mr. Clement was preparing to present his asylum claim before a U.S. immigration court housed not far from the ICE offices within the Adelanto facility. Immigration proceedings in detention centers are considered “administrative” matters and are less formal than regular court proceedings. The usual rules of evidence do not apply and the presiding judges have substantial leeway in their interpretation of testimony and the assessment of asylum claims. Meanwhile, as U.S. immigration policy dictates, he can only receive legal representation at his own expense; Mr. Clement was forced to represent himself.

Yet despite such terrible circumstances, Mr. Clement is one of the fortunate ones. With the help of a bond fund[13] established for the Adelanto hunger strikers by a local organization, volunteers were able to bond him out of the detention center just before his deportation hearing. A regular immigration judge on the outside—rather than within Adelanto—will now hear his asylum case, and Mr. Clement will now have a more normal set of legal set of proceedings. At the same time, he is stuck within the U.S. criminal justice system. He was bonded out on a $17,000 bond with two ankle bracelets (shackles produced by a subsidiary of the GEO Group)—one for ICE, and one for the bond company. The bond company that collateralized his release requires former detainees to pay a $480 “activation fee” for the ankle monitor, and $420 per month service fee for as long as it takes for his case to be resolved. Yet, as an asylum seeker awaiting trial, Mr. Clement is not allowed to seek employment to cover this non-refundable fee, the ankle monitor fee, or his day-to-day living expenses.

Mr. Clement may be out of detention, but he is certainly not free.

 

Notes

  • With gratitude to Peter James Hudson for his brilliant and generous feedback.

[1] All names of asylum seekers are pseudonyms.

[2] “Haitian Immigrants Victims of Xenophobic Attacks in Brazil,” TeleSur, 9 August 2015, https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Haitian-Immigrants-Victims-of-Xenophobic-Attacks-in-Brazil-20150809-0002.html; “‘It’s not because I’m black, is it?’—As Haitian immigrants head to the south of Brazil, racist tendencies arise as descendants of European immigrants turn their noses up,” Black Women of Brazil, 29 May 2015, https://blackwomenofbrazil.co/2015/05/29/its-not-because-im-black-is-it-as-haitian-immigrants-head-to-the-south-of-brazil-racist-tendencies-arise-as-descendants-of-european-immigrants-turn-their-noses-up/.

[3] Although, with pressure from the United States, Honduras has begun arresting Haitian migrants traveling through the country (http://www.hougansydney.com/whats-happening-in-haiti/more-than-100-haitian-migrants-arrested-in-honduras).

[4] It turns out that the Mexican government does not allow all who want to cross the border to the U.S. Instead, it passes out appointment dates to cross. Most of these dates require the Haitian (and other migrants) to spend at least two weeks in Baja California.

[5] Kate Morrissey, “ Detaining Haitians awaiting deportation to hurricane-ravaged homeland is not inexpensive,” San Diego Union Tribune, 11 November 2016, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/sd-me-haitian-cost-20161111-story.html.

[6] Of course, the U.S. has a long history of detaining Haitian asylum seekers and migrants. Two of the more notorious detention centers are Krome Detention Center (http://thepublicarchive.com/?p=3362) and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay (http://gitmomemory.org/timeline/haitians-and-gtmo/) before it gained more notoriety as a maximum-security prison for purported suspects of the U.S. “War on Terror.” Both of these detention centers have reputations for the cruel treatment of Haitian immigrants.

[7] Daniel González, “Migrants amassed at U.S.-Mexico border unsure what’s next,” azcentral,13 December 2016, http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/border-issues/2016/12/13/thousands-haitian-migrants-amassed-us-mexico-border-unsure-whats-next/94688238/.

[8] There are also new impediments to social life, including the recent Haitian government’s new anti-LGBT posture (http://www.haitilibre.com/en/news-21838-haiti-politics-what-say-the-law-on-reputation-and-good-life-and-morals.html).

[9] Jemima Pierre, “Haiti: The Second Occupation,” The Black Scholar, 14 August 2015, http://www.theblackscholar.org/haiti-the-second-occupation/; Anthony Fenton and Dru Oja Jay, “Ottawa’s “Secret Memo”: Canada’s Role in Haiti’s February 2004 Coup d’Etat,” Global Research, 26 February 2013, https://www.globalresearch.ca/declassifying-canada-in-haiti-canadian-officials-planned-military-intervention-weeks-before-haitian-coup/2225; “When Canada plotted to overthrow Haiti’s government,” 24 January 2014, https://yvesengler.com/tag/ottawa-initiative/.

[10] According to Dady Chery, Haiti’s UN mission is the only UN Chapter 7 force in a country that is not at war. Chapter 7 of the UN Charter gives the UN Security Council the power to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace” and take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security.” Participating countries have boasted about Haiti being a place where they could test their police methods and military equipment for urban warfare on an unsuspecting population” (“10 Reasons Why UN Occupation of Haiti Must End,” Haïti Liberté, 19 April 2017, https://haitiliberte.com/10-reasons-why-un-occupation-of-haiti-must-end/).

[11] Jemima Pierre, “Brazil’s Haitian Training Ground,” Black Agenda Report, 4 May 2011, https://blackagendareport.com/content/brazil’s-haitian-training-ground.

[12] Gina Athena Ulysse, “30 Thousand Haitian Lives Lost to U.N. Cholera,” HuffPost, 6 June 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-athena-ulysse/30-thousand-haitian-lives_b_10299692.html.

[13] https://cluela.nationbuilder.com/Adelanto.

 

Jemima Pierre is Associate Professor jointly appointed in the Departments of African American Studies and of Anthropology at UCLA. She is the author of The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race (Chicago). Her research focuses on race, political economy, transnationalism, and the politics of knowledge production.

Copyright: © 2017 Jemima Pierre. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

 

ArticlesPoetry

An Agent Suspects of Her

Omar Pimienta

an agent suspects of her
suspects of him    suspects of me
suspects himself and above all suspects the baby

his work      to suspect   suspicious

everything about you is suspect: your glasses are suspicious
                     your books are suspicious
                     your car is suspicious
       the cloudy day is suspicious
       the picture on your ID is suspicious
       your last name is suspicious
       your ears are particularly suspicious
       your fingerprints
       above all are very suspicious

she carries a newborn
he looks at the IDs
there’s no picture that’s true to a baby
there’s no ID that can assure
that you are you at 10 days after arriving to the party

every father or mother suspects
during the first 10 days
where that baby came from

suspicion is part of the cog
that churns when the world moves

a suspicious customs officer
suspects     asks her to pull out her breast
she suspects         he suspects her breasts
asks her to breast-feed
if that child is hers there will be milk


if not the suspicion will be certain

she does it
he asks her to do it again
during the first attempt the amount of milk
was suspiciously small

she does it again
he allows her to cross
and the line of suspects moves on.

21_LIP6Eed2

  • Translated by by Jose Antonio Villarán.

Omar Pimienta is a Tijuana-based artist and writer, and Ph.D. candidate at in Literature at UC San Diego. His work examines questions of identity, migration, citizenship, emergency poetics, landscape, and memory, and his work is currently on display as part of the unDocumenta exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art. He has published four books of poetry in México and Spain, and his newest book, The Album of Fences, with translations by Jose Antonio Villarán, is forthcoming with Cardboard House Press.

Copyright: © 2017 Omar Pimienta. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

ArticlesPoetry

This is Not a Lie

Omar Pimienta

This is not a lie
        it’s not a lie about the lie       a lie that prolongs the lie

this is the truth   the only truth

Anastasio Hernández-Rojas  (San Luis Potosí 1968 – San Diego †2010)
stole a bottle of wine
      a bottle of wine
to celebrate mother’s day    his own         his children’s

prison and deportation    beatings and electricity
the only truth is death

it can be seen     it can be heard     the lie spreads
until it creates a discourse

but the truth is this: people die
and the truth most real is this:
        there are people who die in the hands of others
        who believe killing is part of their job

Anastasio Hernández-Rojas  (San Luis Potosí 1968San Diego †2010)
screamed so they would stop beating him
they beat him because he screamed
the people heard
the people heard     even though they didn’t want to

sound is more stubborn than image
the eye is more afraid than the ear
the truth just like fear is felt

few were able to translate the scream
others screamed to let him go
someone asked like he did      for help
others wanted to ignore this and crossed the border

this is not a lie     it’s not a lie about the lie
                                 this is the truth      the last truth.

21_LIP7Eed2

  • Translated by by Jose Antonio Villarán.

Omar Pimienta is a Tijuana-based artist and writer. His work examines questions of identity, migration, citizenship, emergency poetics, landscape, and memory, and his work is currently on display as part of the unDocumenta exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art. He has published four books of poetry in México and Spain, and his newest book, The Album of Fences, with translations by Jose Antonio Villarán, is forthcoming with Cardboard House Press.

Copyright: © 2017 Omar Pimienta. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

Undocumented Emotional Intelligence

Rosas Figure 1

Ana Elizabeth Rosas

Adelaida Gutierrez wrote “The Eternal Wait” during the Spring 2016 semester. She wrote it to capture the people and moments that framed her immigration history.[1] She identified and described the anxiety she felt over her mother’s U.S. immigration status as an underestimated undocumented experience in the state of California. Gutierrez is among the undergraduate students enrolled in my courses at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) who have developed and applied informed and meaningful dimensions of emotional intelligence as an intellectual priority. She is also among the students at our campus that, irrespective of whether they are U.S. citizens, have met with me to untangle, write, and learn from their own emotive immigration histories. She and her fellow students’ investment in an emotional intelligence that does not underestimate the transformative potential of emotive immigration history has proven to be intellectually generative. For the purpose of this essay, an emotive immigration history is being referred to as a person’s historical account of the underestimated emotional configuration and consequences of navigating particular boundaries—including governmental border enforcement measures and programs—as an immigrant person or a person with an emotional connection to an immigrant person across a diversity of contexts and relationships, and over a range of space and time.

Since the 2015-2016 academic year, UCI undergraduate students have grown in their commitment to recollect, document, write, value, share, and learn from their undocumented emotive immigration histories under my faculty advisement, which has been something they have done together as a critical intellectual response to the tumult of the contemporary moment.[2] Our collective investment in appreciating the relevance and potential of our emotive immigration histories together has emerged as a restorative intellectual investment at our campus because it has laid the foundation for an intellectual imaginary that refuses to settle for emotionally unintelligent approaches to U.S. border enforcement measures and programs.

Learning about their undocumented emotive immigration histories together and having an emotive immigration history in place to turn to when pursuing their undergraduate study has been helpful at UCI. And so had the support provided to each other, with increased importance as students have benefited from the federal government’s administration of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. In 2012, President Barack Obama created this program to grant temporary immigration status to an estimated 742,000 people (about one in three living in California), permitting them legally to work, pursue an education, and continue openly contributing to U.S. society.[3] Every two years, successful DACA program applicants were expected to renew their program participation through their continued fulfillment of program requirements. More than 800,000 immigrants have DACA program temporary status and permits.[4]

It is important to not overlook that DACA recipients are young. In 2014, the largest age group of DACA recipients were individuals younger than 19 years of age.[5] Upon writing this article, an estimated 4,000 students attending University of California campuses are DACA program recipients, and an unrecorded number of students are in the process of applying to this program or else know a student, friend, loved one, or family member pursuing education, employment, marriage, caring for their family, conducting civic engagement and political activism as recipients of this program.[6] Taken collectively this makes President Trump’s 5 September 2017 decision to rescind DACA a devastating social reality for students and faculty like myself who work closely with students participating in this program and who are interested in the future of students at our campus. We worry that if Congress does not pass legislation protecting DACA recipients, an estimated 404,909 of them will have temporary status revoked from permits expiring in 2018.[7] This means that immigrant students, among other undocumented immigrant peoples, would be subject to deportation from the United States.

Such deep-seated concern has inspired UCI students to invest in taking careful inventory of their and their fellow students’ emotive immigration histories to remind themselves of the positive results that occur when they don’t let questions about personal relationships, daily routine, and outlook on their academic, emotional, and financial future intensify or reproduce anxiety and exhaustion over immigration, immigration status, and the future of the DACA program and other border enforcement scenarios. Engaging with fellow students at our campus without intensifying the emotional weight of the many ways that border enforcement measures and programs influence their emotional relationships, wellbeing, and lives became a widely shared (and often undocumented) goal among students at our campus.

Engaging with fellow students at our campus without intensifying the emotional weight of the many ways that border enforcement measures and programs influence their emotional relationships, wellbeing, and lives became a widely shared (and often undocumented) goal among students at our campus.

By focusing on the undocumented and emotionally intelligent intellectual imaginaries, productivity, and community, in response to the uncertainty of our contemporary immigration policy as an instructive undocumented experience, UCI students have forged, developed,  informed, and engaged humane forms of emotional intelligence alongside other undergraduate students. This has been integral to the pursuit of thriving as a community of learners that cares about the emotive consequences and future of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs. Learning from the writing, documentation, and collaborations that UCI students have undertaken as proactive and emotionally intelligent students enrolled in my courses and workshops on immigration history and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies throughout the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years is integral to enriching a form of scholarship on the intellectual investments and collaborations of students who have prioritized learning from undocumented social realities, emotive relationships, and intellectual choices they have made as undergraduate students facing the uncertainty of immigration policy while being part of the University of California.[8] The present essay aims to showcase that the intellectual act of recollecting, documenting, and learning from undocumented emotive immigration histories together with humanity and with rigorous critical reflection provides a revealing and promising approach to the emotional expanse and consequences of undocumented immigration and immigration policy within and beyond our University of California classrooms. 


Writing Emotive Immigration History

For UCI students investing in the writing of their emotive immigration history was a way of recognizing and learning from the entirety of their family history without underestimating the weight of their feelings. In “The Eternal Wait,” Gutierrez recognized that throughout her childhood her mother’s pursuit of a legalized U.S. immigration status had been formative to her developing an emotional intelligence that would discourage her from underestimating the emotional accountability of being supportive of undocumented immigrant parental figures as they pursued the legalization of their immigration status. She shared the worry that would overcome her whenever she and her older brother accompanied their mother to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offices to complete forms and conduct interviews. This solidified her support for fellow students and friends applying and benefiting from an immigration status that protects them against deportation from the United States. And this act made it possible for her to confront the silence that sets in when pursuing the legalization of one’s immigration status in the United States.

Elaborating, Gutierrez noted that she was expected to

remain quiet after my mother was called behind the monochromatic cubicles. I anxiously sat in my chair and took in my surroundings. There wasn’t a hint of color to feast my eyes upon, just the decaying noxious spectrum of browns and weird faded yellows.  It was hard to distract my mind from the catastrophic thoughts racing through my head. At our age waiting for my mom to reappear felt like an eternity.[9]

She explained that being “expected to sit still and behave was impossible.”[10] How could she be still? The likelihood of her mother’s INS interview resulting in the permanent separation of their family was real. The emotional weight of waiting was not new for Gutierrez, and she feared that students and friends applying or renewing their DACA program permits to varying degrees and on an everyday basis shouldered the weight of waiting in silence.

Writing about the emotive continuities between her recollections of her emotive immigration history and the feelings students acknowledged and shared as part of our discussions of these histories moved Gutierrez to identify the enduring emotional challenge of being an immigrant and/or a member of a mixed-status immigrant family in the United States. Writing her emotive immigration history fueled her resolve to appropriate an informed emotional intelligence so that she did not risk underestimating the emotional labor and silence that INS forms and interactions entailed. Recollecting her emotive immigration history during this challenging moment in U.S. immigration history informed her acknowledgement of the feelings and silence with which students and friends pursue an undergraduate education, making ends meet, and caring for themselves and their immigrant family relatives and friends.

Writing and sharing their emotive immigration histories with each other also inspired UCI students to recognize the influence of formative people and moments that framed their understanding of the emotive configuration and impact of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs. Allocating time from their packed schedules to write on the emotional conditions, relationships, and weight that informs their understanding of border enforcement led these students to identify their recollecting, writing, and learning from their emotive immigration histories together as an invaluable learning experience, which had been rarely afforded to them (especially in the university), if at all. Embracing an emotive approach together resonated as decisive for many of these students towards their finally acknowledging their personal connection to the emotional intelligence they sought to enhance as an informed and humane response to the emotional grip of U.S. government border enforcement measures and programs.

Throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, UCI students continued to write and share emotive immigration histories that also centered on the destinations and people that most longed for the legal right to pursue an education, and to enjoy employment and a family. These rights were determined for countless immigrant students by the U.S. government. These students’ willingness to forge an emotional intelligence that valued the restorative potential of the diversity of destinations for framing people’s emotive immigration histories together encouraged students to write about their feelings of transnational longing and loss. Mariana Rodriguez was among the students who wrote an emotive immigration history steeped in her longing for Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. In “Gorditas de Nata,” (Patties made out of Cream) she explained the following:

Three weeks ago, when I had gorditas de nata again after 11 years, they tasted like everything that had been snatched away from me. In a few bites, I was reminded of all the memories that could have been mine, but were not. I was reminded that I could not be there for the warmth that vibrated through the music, tight hugs, and fireworks that set the sky on fire. More regrettably, I was not able to hold my uncle’s hand before he passed away.[11]

Rodriguez’s recollections of Tijuana as integral to her emotive immigration history made it possible for she and fellow students to discuss the revealing potential of yearning when developing a capacious emotional intelligence together. Her writing about her yearning for the food, sounds, feelings, celebration, and people that made Tijuana a uniquely invaluable connection to experiences and people that she is unable to enjoy in the U.S. alerted students to the reality of other students and friends shouldering intense transnational longing as part of their maturing into adulthood and navigating the rigors of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs on a daily basis. Rodriguez expanding on what is not possible in the U.S. resonated with students as an important intellectual move toward developing a kind of emotional intelligence that prioritizes recognizing that students cherish, miss, and worry about experiences and people who are not physically in the United States. Her transnational emotive immigration history presented students with the often undocumented social reality that young adults at our campus hold and care about a diversity of destinations, experiences, and people when coming to terms with their emotive immigration history and its influence on their response to U.S. border enforcement operatives.

Diego Hernandez was also among the students who wrote about his emotive ties to people beyond the U.S. when writing his emotive immigration history. Hernandez elaborated on the emotional impact of the transnational absence of his grandmother. In “Memories We Did Not Leave at the Border,” Hernandez focused on his devotion and undying love for her. He shared that upon separating from her in Guatemala to journey to the United States as an undocumented immigrant child in the mid-1990s, he clung to his emotional bond to her to weather his migration and settlement in the U.S. Hernandez identified memories of her love as most influential when implementing an emotional intelligence to face her absence and the social rejection, racial discrimination, and gender violence stemming from punitive and restrictive border enforcement measures. He wrote that his grandmother

was a stern woman, but her love for me melted like paletas de hielo con sabor de tamarindo (tamarind popsicles) in the sun. The sugary extract of her love made us inseparable. She was my first love, and until today at the age of 28, I long to return to her embrace. I long to return to those young days when the softness and creases of her aging skin enveloped me with care and tenderness.[12]

Hernandez also explained that upon separating from his grandmother, he clearly remembers,

That morning we left behind a woman whose love could never be taken from my heart, even by a border wall that separates us. In my recollection of her eyes I found love, and in her laughter I found the comfort of a child’s lullaby.[13]

The intellectual investment in developing a personally meaningful emotional intelligence as a shared priority encouraged Hernandez and fellow students to share emotive immigration histories inclusive of ongoing transnational emotional challenges.


Revisiting Revealing Relationships

By the 2016-2017 academic year, UCI students expanded the writing of their emotive immigration histories to include documentation that captured the influence of formative people and their recollections of their immigration histories developed from conversations, material culture items, and documents that influential family relatives shared with them. Stephanie Palomares excelled as a most committed student when writing her emotive immigration history. She visited her grandmother, Delfina Palomares, five times as she weathered a severe cold and flu to collect and learn from the material of the emotive immigration history they shared.[14]

During her visits Palomares learned that Delfina had been born and raised in Rancho el Rodeo, Jalisco, Mexico. As a young girl, she lived a middle-class lifestyle with loving parents. Enthusiastic in her approach to life, she enjoyed music and dancing; in fact, she met her husband, Efren Palomares, at a dance party in nearby Talpa de Allende, Jalisco. Shortly after having met, they married in 1962 and moved to the village of Yano Grande, Jalisco, to be closer to Efren’s workplace. Upon beginning their life together, Delfina transitioned into a financially precarious family situation. Ten years later (1972), and after the birth of their five children, Delfina and Efren’s employment conditions compelled them to raise their family in the United States.

In 1973, Efren followed Delfina’s advice and departed to the United States to earn the wages necessary for their family to live together. In 1976, Delfina and their children reunited with Efren in Orange County. They worked hard together, and endured the hardships of immigration patiently. Over the years, they dedicated themselves to raising their family in Santa Ana. In 1981, the couple bought their first home in Anaheim, cementing their personal investment in documenting the love and moments—the emotive immigration history—that connected their family together.

Among the material culture items that Palomares’ grandmother shared with her was a gold medallion of the Virgin Mary. Delfina had worn and derived much peace from the religious protection and spiritual energy that this medallion bestowed upon her. Delfina recollected holding on to this medallion tightly while praying in silence for spiritual courage and protection as she shouldered much uncertainty. Photographs of Delfina alongside her five sons, daughter, and Efren as they celebrated her birthday and successful battle with cancer were also part of the documentation that she shared with Stephanie to convey the significant moments that bound them together. Delfina explained to Palomares the importance for the undocumented to personally document meaningful relationships through taking and preserving photographs that bring to life the moments in which being together was a fruitful emotional investment. She insisted on sharing that it was important to create and inherit an emotive history that prioritized documenting the act of living together, smiling together, and reveling in the power of having endured together. These were not to be treated as one of many moments but rather as important moments in the trajectory of their family’s emotive immigration history. Delfina’s words infused into our class’s collective consideration of this history the value of documenting elderly immigrant relatives’ places when confronted with worrisome U.S. governmental approaches and further outlooks on undocumented immigration.

The power of documentation was also evident in Esmeralda Hic’s emotive immigration history. She prioritized sharing how her mother, Juanita Magdalena Garza’s documentation of her coming of age through photographs of her Quinceañera had been formative to her upbringing .[15] Juanita used photographs of this celebration to not lose sight of her life being comprised of moments where she enjoyed herself alongside childhood friends and with a heart full of hope for the future. She explained that this is why forty years later on 27 April 2013 she had persevered to finance the documentation and celebration of Esmeralda’s Quinceañera in a similar fashion. Like her parents, she had invested herself in making sure that Esmeralda had an archive of moments she could turn to as a source from which to derive inner strength when confronted with difficult situations at whatever age and wherever she found herself. The preservation and recollection of the milestones achieved and documented by these women allowed students to travel back and forth through time.


Similarly, by the end of the 2016-2017 academic year the interest of my students and myself led us to encourage as many other UCI students as possible to consider the productive qualities of developing an emotional intelligence as an intellectual priority together. This resulted in a workshop collaboration at our campus, called “Revisiting Immigration History.” This workshop served as a productive intellectual space and community from which to learn from each other as a community of learners. Our forging an emotional intelligence together through this workshop made it easier for students to understand and cope with their feelings on undocumented immigration and immigration history.

Each student participating in the workshop submitted a photograph that captured an undocumented emotive dimension of immigration history and/or the undocumented immigrant experience that they welcomed discussing as part of this workshop. This approach to coming together allowed students to use their presentation of their photograph submission as a way of introducing themselves and their intellectual imaginaries to students that they were often meeting for the first time without augmenting their emotional exhaustion. The presentation of these photographs allowed students to consider undocumented immigration as an expansive, continuous, and diverse process and experience. Developing and applying this intellectual sensibility together made it accessible for reflecting on how we each are impacted by and invested in the future of undocumented immigration with documentation that students generated on their own and for the sake of us learning from each other and together with our humanity front and center. This workshop experience resulted in a careful consideration of the modalities that came into focus and grew in value because of the influential absence or decline in emotional intelligence evident in the U.S. government’s attitude towards immigration, undocumented immigrants, and immigration policy in the form of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs.

Participating in this workshop energized Andres Oceguera Pinedo to share a family photograph that his mother, Mercedes Pinedo, had shared with him.[16] Oceguera Pinedo explained that in the midst of fellow students working tirelessly to contribute to the emotional and financial welfare of their mixed status immigrant families, as they pursued their undergraduate education at our campus, his mother’s rationale for taking and sharing this photograph with him resonated differently. He explained that his mother’s photograph featured her surrounded by his older sisters. It was taken by a family friend, so that his mother documented being able to labor and care for his sisters during the summer of 1975 as an agricultural laborer at the John Pryor Farms in Soledad. His mother shared that this photograph captured what people in our contemporary moment rarely dare to acknowledge or document with care: the emotional intelligence of immigrants. Ocegueda Pinedo elaborated that his mother cherished this photograph, because it did not allow her to forget the hard earned privilege of being in one place together and as a family as she labored to ensure that they had the right to do so as an immigrant family in the United States. Like herself, Andres’s mother wanted him to understand and appreciate their family photograph as her documentation of the undocumented value immigrants place on doing everything possible to derive strength from simply being still and together after a hard week’s work. Such words and documentation and discussing them together paved the way for students to learn from Ocegueda Pinedo the importance of pausing regularly to take inventory and to document in ways that we deem comforting and humane—the hard earned privilege and value of being still and alongside those we care about and love.

Marleni Flores was also among the students who shared that the current uncertainty undocumented immigrant families face in the United States had deepened the appreciation of her mother, Jesuita Sanchez, for a family photograph taken of her alongside her family in 1974 by a fellow town resident as they came of age and enjoyed town life in Tzicatlan, Puebla together.[17] Flores described this family photograph featuring her mother’s cousin, siblings, and herself as among the few times in their lives in which they were able to enjoy time together as a family, in the same location, and in a situation in which they could afford to take a photograph.  Preserving this trace of a moment in which they were not pressured to migrate within and beyond Mexico continuously or worry about U.S. border enforcement measures had proven emotionally helpful to both her mother and Flores. She shared that it had prevented her mother from losing sight of the entirety of her family’s history, most specifically unforgettably joyful moments.

Upon concluding this workshop, students shared that it had been restorative to consider and discuss how the people we care about have preserved and discussed their emotive immigration histories. It resonated as a generative approach to considering the undocumented dimensions of immigration, the immigrant experience, and immigration history together and at our campus. Our focusing on the documentation and rationales behind emotive immigration histories resonated as productive vantage points towards identifying how a diversity of generations of immigrants with varying immigration statuses and perspectives on immigration have responded to the US government’s enforcement of its borders. Discussing the forethought, care, and resourcefulness with which their own immigrant family relatives and friends had invested in documenting and learning from their emotional intelligence for their and their family’s sake allowed students to not lose sight of the attentiveness and dedication with which older generations of immigrants had faced the pressures of US border enforcement measures and programs. Such sensibility deepened students’ appreciation for having invested in enriching their emotional intelligence together via this workshop. Moreover, I hope that it serves as an example of what we can achieve and share when we embrace emotive immigration history as a seminal pathway towards facing our feelings concerning immigration, most especially US border enforcement measures and programs within and beyond California together.


Notes

[1] Writing assignment submitted to the author by Adelaida Gutierrez, University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Adelaida Gutierrez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect she and her family’s confidentiality.

[2] The author will reflect on student course assignments and discussions undertaken in her course offerings, exhibition project, and workshop on immigration history and the Chicana/o-Latina/o experience at UC Irvine during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years.

[3]  Priya Krishnakumar, Joe Fox, and Ally Levine, “What’s next for DACA and the nearly 800,000 people protected by it,” Los Angeles Times, 6 September 2017, http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-na-pol-daca-future/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Teresa Watanabe, “UC President Janet Napolitano blasts Trump’s DACA decision,” Los Angeles Times, 5 September 2017, http://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-essential-education-updates-southern-uc-president-napolitano-blasts-trump-s-1504627146-htmlstory.html.

[7] Krishnakumar, Fox, and Levine, “What’s Next for DACA.”

[8] This article is informed by and attempts to build on the scholarship of Roberto G. Gonzalez, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

[9] Adelaida Gutierrez.

[10] Ibid.

[11] This quote is a part of “Gorditas de Nata,” a writing assignment submitted to the author by Mariana Rodriguez, University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Mariana Rodriguez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect the student and her family’s confidentiality.

[12] This quote is a part of “Memories We Did Not Leave at the Border,” a writing assignment submitted to the author by Diego Hernandez, at the University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Diego Hernandez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect the student and his family’s confidentiality.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Information about Delfina Palomares’ emotive immigration history and thoughts about the promise of The Material of Memory were collected and provided as part of conversations with and a course assignment submitted to the author by Stephanie Palomares, University of California, Irvine, December 2016.

[15] Information about Juanita Magdalena Garza’s emotive immigration history and thoughts about the promise of The Material of Memory were collected and provided as part of conversations with and a course assignment submitted to the author by Esmeralda Hic, University of California, Irvine, December 2016.

[16] Information about Mercedes Pinedo’s emotive immigration history were submitted and provided as part of the Revisiting Immigration History workshop group by Andres Oceguera Pinedo to the author, University of California, Irvine, March 2017.

[17] Information about Jesuita Sanchez emotive immigration history were submitted and provided as part of the Revisiting Immigration History workshop group by Marleni Flores to the author, University of California, Irvine, March 2017.

 

Ana Elizabeth Rosas is an associate professor of history and Chicano/Latino Studies at UC Irvine. She is the author of Abrazando El Espiritu: Bracero Families Confront the US-Mexico Border (UC Press, 2014), which received the Immigration and Ethnic History Society’s Theodore Soloutos Memorial Book Award for the best book on immigration history.

 

Copyright: © 2017 Ana Marie Rosas. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

California’s Opportunities for Undocumented Students: Are They Enough?

Golash-1ed

Tanya Golash-Boza
Zulema Valdez

Only a quarter of the 122,600 undocumented students who graduate high school in the United States each year will attend college and less than 3 percent will complete university.[1] Undocumented students face tremendous obstacles to educational success—due to their legal status, financial hardship, and their parents’ lack of experience with higher education.[2] Many of these undocumented students have spent nearly all their lives in California and know no other home.

With nearly two and half million of the estimated eleven million undocumented migrants in the United States, California is the state with the largest number of undocumented migrants. The Golden State also offers some of the most favorable higher education policies for them.[3] Governor Gray Davis signed California Assembly Bill (AB) 540 into law in 2001, which granted undocumented students eligibility for in-state tuition. One decade later, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 130, making private scholarships available to undocumented students; and AB 131, which allowed eligible undocumented students to apply for Cal Grants and other state financial aid. These policies make higher education more affordable and accessible for undocumented students.

What happens when these students arrive on campus? In 2014, a group of undocumented students at the University of California, Merced—the institution where we work—asked us to help them find out. These students wanted to know what obstacles undocumented students face, and what opportunities allow for their success. We conducted focus groups with thirty-five undocumented students enrolled at the university, which is a Latino-majority university in California’s Central Valley.

Our findings reveal that a favorable local context, including ample university resources, targeted university policies and procedures, favorable state laws, as well as federal policies of administrative relief such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)[4] have brought a four-year degree within reach for undocumented students. As Yvette, one of our focus group participants, stated, “Here in California we’re lucky… I know other people in other states still have it really hard. If none of [these policies] had been in place, I would probably be back in Mexico.”

At the same time, undocumented students continue to experience the negative consequences associated with being undocumented, especially as it pertains to economic uncertainty and the threat of deportation, both directly and vicariously through the experiences of their family members. Joaquin captured the sentiment of many when he told us he has a “constant fear” his parents could be deported.

Financial concerns were paramount for the undocumented students we spoke to. Two-thirds of the students in our focus groups had an annual family income less than $25,000. Their undocumented parents were barely getting by and had difficulty coming up with financial support for their children in college. At the time, undocumented students did not qualify for student loans, a fact many of our participants lamented. Don, for example, explained: “We’re always worrying. Are my parents going to have enough money for the next payment?” John chimed in, saying: “It was hard because of not being able to not take out loans. My parents are low-income and even though they give us financial aid, it is not enough.” California now offers small loans to undocumented students, which alleviates some of these concerns.[5]

 

Don, for example, explained: “We’re always worrying. Are my parents going to have enough money for the next payment?” John chimed in, saying: “It was hard because of not being able to not take out loans. My parents are low-income and even though they give us financial aid, it is not enough.”

Although the adjustment to university was difficult for many students, they also spoke about how much support they found on campus. Sara summed up the climate at UC Merced: “I think that overall this school and the faculty and staff try to make us feel as comfortable as possible.”

California laws that legitimize undocumented students’ presence at university and enable their access to education combined with a supportive campus climate suggests undocumented students at UC Merced fare substantially better than those who came before the passage of such policies or reside outside of California. Our findings suggest that expanding access to opportunities for all undocumented people—or better yet, a massive legalization program—has the potential to change undocumented immigrants’ social and economic life chances in the United States.

Undocumented students’ daily lives are affected most by the contexts closest to them, which at the local level of UC Merced and California has improved their educational experiences and likelihood of attaining a four-year degree; and yet, they are unable to forget the larger national context, including federal policies of looming mass deportation, which underscore their own vulnerability and that of their family members, and the condition a persistent sense of exclusion and isolation. The specter of illegality forms the backdrop for undocumented students’ lives.

In a highly favorable local and state context, these students thrive in high school and move on to college. An encouraging teacher, a supportive group of friends, and a full ride to university all make their lives more bearable. Nevertheless, there are real limits to these students’ ability to excel in the absence of federal immigration reform, and their legal vulnerability is never far from their minds.

The financial constraints undocumented students confront affects their ability to enroll in needed classes in time, secure affordable housing, and dampens opportunities other students enjoy, such as taking advantage of study-abroad programs. Our findings underscore the importance of trained and skilled institutional agents and support staff at high schools and colleges who make an immediate impact on undocumented students’ decisions to apply for and attend university.

We conducted these focus groups in 2015, when President Obama was in office. The climate has changed. Whereas Obama participated in creating and supported DACA, President Trump ordered an end to the program.[6] In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s inauguration, students questioned whether they should continue to apply for DACA and also expressed growing unease regarding the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the wider off-campus community. Students also expressed some doubt that UC Merced administrators and faculty were doing enough to protect them on campus and off, which led to some campus protests and calls for faculty conducting research among this vulnerable community to be more accountable to students.

With the recent rescission of DACA, students who currently have DACA will eventually lose their work permits as well as access to employment in the formal economy. DACA has had a noticeably positive impact on its beneficiaries. It has opened up economic opportunities, allowing recipients to obtain driver licenses,[7] and even to open their first bank accounts. The rescission of DACA will negatively affect undocumented youths’ access to university as it affects their ability to work and thus afford university, either while working, or while having to pay back loan debt upon graduation.

In contrast, a more favorable federal context could be life-changing. Providing a pathway to legalization would go a long way to help remedy the issues undocumented students face.

Our research provides evidence that favorable policies at the local and state level improve the life chances of undocumented youths and students in California in very real ways, with positive effects on their educational outcomes and the broader community. From our perspective, then, policy reforms at the federal level that improve the national context are necessary to alleviate the challenges undocumented students face, expand their opportunities and chances of success, and enhance their lives and those of their family members.

Golash-3 

Notes

[1] Esther Yu Hsi Lee, “Why So Few Undocumented Immigrants Make It Through College,” Think Progress, 31 March 2015, https://thinkprogress.org/why-so-few-undocumented-immigrants-make-it-through-college-d07d30136e5/; Tanya Golash-Boza and Benigno Merlin, “Here’s how undocumented students are able to enroll at American universities,” The Conversation, 24 November 2016, https://theconversation.com/heres-how-undocumented-students-are-able-to-enroll-at-american-universities-69269.

[2] Leisy J. Abrego, “I Can’t Go to College Because I Don’t Have Papers: Incorporation Patterns of Undocumented Latino Youth,” Latino Studies 4 (2006): 212-31; Leisy J. Abrego and Roberto G. Gonzales, “Blocked Paths, Uncertain Futures: The Postsecondary Education and Labor Market Prospects of Undocumented Latino Youth,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk 15 (2010): 144-57.; Shannon Gleeson and Roberto G. Gonzales, “When Do Papers Matter? An Institutional Analysis of Undocumented Life in the United States,” International Migration 50 (2012): 1-19.

[3] Rodrigo Dorador, “The California Dream Act: A Financial Aid Guide for Undocumented Students,” April 2015, http://www.e4fc.org/images/E4FC_CADAGuide.pdf.

[4] https://www.uscis.gov/archive/consideration-deferred-action-childhood-arrivals-daca

[5] California DREAM Loan Program, http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/paying-for-uc/whats-available/dream-loan-program/index.html.

[6] Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Trump Moves to End DACA and Calls on Congress to Act,” New York Times, 5 September 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/05/us/politics/trump-daca-dreamers-immigration.html?mcubz=3.

[7] See Laura E. Enriquez, Daisy Vazquez Vera, and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, “On the Road to Opportunity: Racial Disparities in Obtaining an AB 60 Driver Licenses,” Boom California, 28 November 2017, https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/11/28/on-the-road-to-opportunity/.

 

Tanya Golash-Boza is a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She has published five books including: Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism (2016), Forced Out Fenced In: Immigration Tales from the Field (2018), and Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post 9/11 America (2015).

Zulema Valdez is Associate Professor of Sociology at UC Merced. Her research interests include racial and ethnic relations, entrepreneurship, and health disparities. She is the author of two books, The New Entrepreneurs: How Race, Class and Gender Shape American Enterprise (2011) and Entrepreneurs and the Search for the American Dream (2015).

 

Copyright: © 2017 Tanya Golash-Boza and Zulema Valdez. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/