The letter below was originally written after 9/11 as an open letter to a relative of mine who had worries about migrating to America. But it feels that it is especially relevant to our time. So here it is, revised.
What is it like to be an immigrant in America these days? Is it still worth coming, you ask, and is the American dream still possible?
Your questions gave me pause. Who from Vietnam, after all, would have thought to ask them a few years back? Didn’t the American dream, or rather the dream of coming to America, cause the movement of millions in our homeland, and stir the soul of many millions more? It breaks my heart then to hear that you might not come. It is to me the worst news yet about my adopted country.
Yet it’s undeniable. The nation of immigrants is turning its back on immigrants once more. The immigrant’s hold on American soil has become increasingly tenuous. Even citizens now face a barrage of hate speech and many are being attacked in a rising wave of hate crimes. In schools, white students scream “build the wall” at their classmates who are Mexicans or Muslims.
“Build the wall” has become a racist mantra chanted by many around the country against non-whites.
Cousin, have you heard the metaphor of the canary in the coal mine? When it stops singing, it means the oxygen has run out, providing a warning to all.
In America, and in the context of a free and open society, often the immigrant is that canary. In economic down times he is often the first to be blamed. And amid the ongoing US war against terrorism, he is fast becoming a scapegoat.
After the 2016 election that ushered in Donald Trump as President of the United States, many hate-crime related incidents occurred in which the President’s name was invoked by the perpetrators, as if to sanction the violence and verbal abuse.
In the name of protection and security, immigrants’ rights are being eroded as I write. Foreign students and workers tremble. I’ve seen an old South Asian man whose hands shook at the airport when he gave his green card to immigration officers, fearing sudden arrest and deportation. I know an undocumented college student at Berkeley — he was brought to the US when he was three years old — who now fakes his address on any application for fear of being deported.
‘I have my hopes’
Yet I have my hopes. Americans rallied at airports in protest when Trump signed an executive order to keep certain groups of people out of the country, including green card holders. The protest against the new tyranny is strong and ongoing. I have hope to that the damage Trump is creating both at home and abroad can be mitigated by his growing unpopularity. After all, he is dismantling international institutions that have been in place since World War II, potentially returning the world to a state of competing nations with hard borders, high tariffs, trade wars, and gun boat diplomacy, turning against the forces of globalization.
And worse, in turning against America’s liberal values and our identity as a nation of immigrant, we are losing our strength in diversity.
Over the years I find it beneficial to look at this country through two different lenses: America versus the United States. The United States is a sovereign nation with permanent interests that is currently waging a war on terrorism. And it will trample upon innocents in its path, be it at home or abroad, if need be, in order to win it. In the process, the newcomer to this country, one without a voice and resources, often becomes collateral damage.
America, on the other hand, has everything you and I ever dreamed of: transparency, freedom, democracy, opportunity, due process, fair play and the promise of progress. America is where you work hard and earn respect.
The two versions exist in a kind of complex dance. In good times, America leads. In bad times, America is forgotten and the United States dances alone. These days, I fear that to be a patriotic immigrant is to love the ideals of America despite what the United States is doing in the name of security.
While I understand the logic of permanent interests, if America is destroyed in the process, then what is the use? And as far as I am concerned the only good patriotism is a civilized one. Blind patriotism always leads to bloody ends. To be patriotic is to dare ask questions. Must rights be abused in the name of security? Is it truly the country’s interest to demonize its minorities and its newcomers?
Dear cousin, I hope I haven’t completely frightened you, but the situation requires honesty. To reach American shores these days is a much more difficult undertaking, with fewer ready-made promises on the horizon.
I still want you to make this difficult journey, but you must be prepared for the challenges ahead. And I’ll let you in on a secret about this American dream you spoke so fondly of: it is you who must renew it. Without you, who dream the American dream, the country is in danger of becoming old. Without your energy, we would weaken. Even if we don’t know it yet, we all desperately need to be reborn through your eyes.
So, is the American Dream still alive? No, cousin, not really. Not without you at the table. Not without you prospering. Not without you.
Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media in San Francisco and the author of “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees in San Francisco, “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” a book of essays on East-West relations, and a memoir, “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.”
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