Tram Nguyen was born in 1975 in the city of Qui Nhon, in central Vietnam, where her parents met after having migrated from the Communist-ruled north in 1954. During the long war that followed, her father became a major in the South Vietnamese army and, after the fall of Saigon, was detained in a Communist reeducation camp. By the time the family was allowed to visit, Nguyen didn’t recognize him. She ran away from the strange, sick, sweaty man who wanted to embrace her — a memory that would return to her years later with visceral force when she began her research, writing, and advocacy on behalf of immigrants held in detention centers here in the U.S.
Once Nguyen’s father was released, the family went into hiding and then fled the country. They were among the first “boat people” — Vietnamese who escaped on small, overcrowded fishing boats. These boat-borne refugees eventually numbered as many as 1 million, about half of whom died at sea. The Nguyens were lucky: Thai fishermen rescued them and brought them to a refugee camp. In 1979 an American Catholic church sponsored their relocation to Wichita, Kansas, where they struggled to rebuild their lives.
With a degree in English from UCLA, Nguyen went to work as a journalist, covering ethnic communities for the mainstream media, but she soon became frustrated with the limitations put on her: her editors were uncomfortable with her frank coverage of racial issues. Today Nguyen lives in Oakland, California, and is executive editor of ColorLines, a multiracial national magazine covering politics, organizing, and creative arts in communities of color. Her extensive coverage of civil-liberties issues earned her a New California Media Award in 2003.
I got in touch with Nguyen after reading her book We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories from Immigrant Communities after 9/11 (Beacon Press). At the time, Americans were trying to make sense of news reports about abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but the plight of immigrants held in dehumanizing conditions right here in the U.S. remained largely unknown, despite the huge number of people affected: an estimated twenty thousand in custody on any given day, two hundred thousand detained annually, plus approximately twelve hundred “secret detainees” rounded up as material witnesses after September 11, 2001. Nguyen was working to lift the veil of secrecy, and I knew from my own experience how difficult that could be: Prior to the terrorist attacks on the U.S., I had been a volunteer paralegal and interpreter for Spanish-speaking immigrants detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS]. Outraged by the human-rights abuses I’d discovered, I’d tried — and failed — to attract media attention to their plight. In the aftermath of 9/11, INS enforcement functions were moved to the Department of Homeland Security, and the agency was renamed Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE]. With immigrants widely seen as potential terrorists, I was sure the veil of secrecy would be even harder to penetrate. I wanted to know how Nguyen had done it, and how she had earned the trust of the families she’d profiled.
While we made plans to meet, millions of immigrants — some documented, some not — marched to protest the highly punitive Sensenbrenner bill (named for Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin), which would have criminalized both undocumented residents and anyone who aided them. Vigilante groups patrolling the U.S.–Mexico border received extensive media coverage. Suddenly immigration was high on the country’s political agenda.
At last Nguyen and I were able to sit down together at a Los Angeles deli she remembered from her college days. There was plenty to talk about: A week earlier, three prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay had committed suicide, and the only three journalists who had been allowed on the base were promptly expelled by the State Department as they tried to cover the story. Three days after that, a U.S. district court had ruled that, as noncitizens, immigrants could be investigated, held in detention indefinitely, and imprisoned without regard to the constitutional rights afforded U.S. citizens.
Nguyen and I continued the conversation a few months later, after Congress had authorized millions of dollars for the construction of a security fence to run for seven hundred miles along the U.S.–Mexico border and given the president the power to strip alleged “enemy combatants” of the right to habeas corpus, which allows detainees to challenge the legality of their detention in court.
Lefer: The title of your book, We Are All Suspects Now, applies to recent immigrants. Given the erosion of civil liberties and privacy under the current administration, does it now apply to the rest of us too?
Nguyen: Initially my sense was no; today, however, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that you or I could be questioned. A journalist I was working with was pulled off a plane because flight attendants noticed he’d written something about detention in his notebook. A significant number of activists have had similar incidents. But I’d say we’re not all suspects to the same degree. For instance, a white woman in a church where I gave a talk said, “I could be taken from my bed at night.” Well, yes, it’s possible, but is it likely? We have to realize that some people are much more vulnerable than others and have less legal recourse, or none at all.
Really, unless you’re from one of the targeted immigrant communities, you have no idea what’s going on there. Streets are empty. Stores and businesses are closed because people have been detained or deported, or their customers have disappeared, or residents are just afraid to go out. These used to be bustling, vibrant neighborhoods, but if you don’t live there or have reason to visit, you would never know the impact homeland-security policies have had. In the two months following September 11, more than twelve hundred Muslim, Arab, and South Asian men were rounded up for indefinite detention. Then, starting in September 2002, there was “special registration,” where noncitizen males from Islamic countries were required to register with the INS.
Lefer: Women can’t be terrorists?
Nguyen: They questioned only men. It was usually the head of the household who was taken. More than eighty thousand men already living in the U.S. went and registered, and nearly fourteen thousand of them were placed in deportation proceedings, most for minor status violations. For example, you can be “out of status” if your visa expires. In many cases, the person had filed for visa renewal in time, but the INS had a backlog of paperwork and didn’t get it done. And after September 11, papers just weren’t being processed. As a result, many people who had been trying to stay within the system were branded “criminals.” The Saeed family, whom I wrote about in my book, were dutifully renewing their visas every year on the way to regularizing their legal presence in the country. But, because of red tape and delays, their paperwork got stuck in the pipeline, and they were out of status by the time of the special registrations. Having seen what was happening in their neighborhood, the Saeeds knew that if they registered, there would be no mercy. So they decided to flee to Canada. By fleeing, however, they gave up any chance of being granted asylum. They took a gamble that Canada would take them in, and they lost.
At ColorLines we started hearing about hate crimes right after September 11. In particular, I heard a lot from Desis Rising Up and Moving, a group of mostly young Indian American activists in New York and New Jersey. The way they described it, people were being rounded up and disappearing. They had already received reports from hundreds of families. At first I wondered: Could it really be as bad as they say it is? So I went to the Passaic County Jail in New Jersey. I found myself with a mother, a grandmother, and four little children visiting a man who had been held for five months. That’s when my memory of seeing my father in the reeducation camp in Vietnam came back to me, and I ended up convincing the Applied Research Center, which publishes ColorLines, to hold a series of public hearings to bring attention to the detention issue. This brought me into contact with community advocates and attorneys working with families who’d been affected. When I later went to interview these families, I already had their trust.
That’s how I met a Somali family named the Osmans. Their story illustrates the worst that can happen to an immigrant. Abdullah and Sukra lived in Mogadishu during the 1990s, when the country was in a state of civil war. Sukra was from a minority clan, and though she and Abdullah had feelings for each other, their relationship was forbidden. The violence got worse, Abdullah was wounded by gunfire, and he and his family fled by sea. It took Sukra longer to get out. During her escape, she saw both her brother and her sister die. Abdullah was resettled in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and went to work cleaning rental cars to support his family. He was also sending money to the refugee camp in Kenya where Sukra and her mother had eventually landed.
Lefer: What did they need money for? I thought the UN or the U.S. supplied all the necessities in the camps.
Nguyen: For the most part, it’s family and friends who support refugees. And that’s another effect of the “war on terror”: regulations and enforcement have made it harder to send money abroad, with terrible consequences. The Somalis in the U.S., for example, relied on their own money-transfer agencies, called hawalas. But after 9/11 these were shut down and their assets frozen, because the U.S. government accused them of funding terrorist organizations. As a result, people lost their money, and their relatives didn’t receive the remittances. Then there’s the chilling effect on Muslim charitable giving. Muslims are supposed to give 10 percent of their income to charity, but with the government suspecting that donations are helping terrorist groups, people are afraid to give. They’re concerned that they’ll end up in a government database — or worse. Some groups have lobbied the State Department to release a list of safe, approved charities, but the government refuses to do it.
It took almost ten years, but Sukra finally made it to the U.S., and she and Abdullah were married. They had gone through so much hardship: the war, and then the dangerous refugee camps. But trouble struck again: Abdullah, now working as a taxi driver, was robbed and got into an altercation with the assailants. One of them dropped a razor blade, and Abdullah managed to pick it up, slash the robber, and escape. When he returned to the scene to report what had happened to the police, they arrested him. He got a lawyer, who assured him there would be no problem — especially when it turned out the assailant had seven prior felonies, most for assault. But then September 11 happened. All of a sudden, Abdullah became a Muslim from a country that harbored terrorists who was accused of using a box-cutter-like weapon. Rather than going to a jury trial, the lawyer advised him to plead guilty and accept a work-release sentence.
Unless you’re from one of the targeted immigrant communities, you have no idea what’s going on there. Streets are empty. Stores and businesses are closed because people have been detained or deported, or their customers have disappeared, or residents are just afraid to go out.
Lefer: So the plea bargain kept him out of jail?
Nguyen: Yes, but no one warned him of the immigration consequences. In 1996 Congress had passed an immigration law aimed at criminal aliens. Abdullah’s guilty plea now made him deportable. So he was taken into detention.
Lefer: Where did they take him?
Nguyen: He spent the next eight months in twenty-three-hour-a-day lockdown in the county jail, where he was allowed outside for less than three hours a week. On weekends he was allowed a visit with Sukra and their daughter — but no physical contact. Then he began being moved around from facility to facility. The government does this all the time, separating detainees from their families and from legal help, if they have any. For three days Abdullah had no food, no water, no blanket. He was denied medical treatment, and when he finally was offered food, it was pork, which his religion forbids him to eat. For several months he was shipped all over the country; he said the conditions in one county jail in Oklahoma were worse than in the refugee camp. After a year and eight months of this, he was allowed to go home and await the disposition of his case. It all depended on the outcome of a court case that would decide whether Somali nationals could be deported back to a country with no functioning government. Ordinarily the answer would have been no, but the U.S. government maintained that deportations to Somalia were vital to national security, and the Supreme Court agreed.
I so wanted this story to have a happy ending. I wanted to believe that someone in the government would show some mercy, would look at these people as individuals. But that doesn’t happen. After the court decision, when I returned to Minneapolis to look for Abdullah and Sukra, they were gone.
Lefer: It seems an ordinary immigrant who gets caught in the system doesn’t stand a chance of avoiding unfair treatment. But it’s not just ordinary immigrants who are affected. In the foreword to your book, author Edwidge Danticat writes about how her uncle left Haiti after having been threatened with death, and landed in Miami, Florida, with a perfectly valid multiple-entry visa. Nevertheless, he was taken into detention, and his heart medication was confiscated. Danticat is a celebrity — at least in literary circles. She has access to the media; she has resources. Yet she was unable to do anything to help her uncle.
Nguyen: He died shackled to a bed, and she wasn’t even allowed to see him. After 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered the indefinite detention of all Haitian asylum-seekers as a matter of national security. Since then, it’s become much harder even to make it here to ask for an asylum hearing at a port of entry.
Lefer: Doesn’t this encourage people fleeing persecution to enter the U.S. illegally?
Nguyen: Yes. That’s what Hortense did. I wrote about her earlier this year for the Progressive. After having survived interrogation and torture by soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she managed to escape and reached the U.S. via Mexico. She was able to provide medical evidence of the torture she had undergone, and she showed her ID card from the village hospital where she had worked, but under the REAL ID Act, the bar is set much higher for proving an asylum case. The judge — who was sympathetic, by the way — asked to see old pay stubs from her job as proof of her former employment. Now, even if a village hospital in the middle of a civil war in Africa were providing pay stubs, is that what you would take with you when escaping?
Lefer: When the REAL ID Act was being voted on in Congress, the mainstream media reports were all about establishing national standards for driver’s licenses. There was no mention of the impact on asylum seekers. It seems changes to immigration law happen under the radar.
Nguyen: You’re right about that. The REAL ID Act didn’t get nearly enough coverage or debate. Asylum and refugee policies generally get pushed under the rug in this country, unlike in Europe, where asylum is a big issue.
In the book I also mention the arrest of Mohamed Abshir Musse, whom a U.S. ambassador once called the “greatest living Somali.” He was jailed for twelve years in his home country for his efforts to promote democracy. Members of Congress sponsored a bill on his behalf. Yet even he was detained, and his asylum petition was questioned. Imagine what it does to a community’s sense of security when a person of his stature is arrested and detained. Think how vulnerable an ordinary Somali refugee must feel.
Lefer: What were the grounds for his detention?
Nguyen: He was caught up in the special registration; his papers hadn’t been processed in time.
Lefer: Given that the U.S. has been a place of refuge for your family, is it especially painful for you to learn what’s happening to other immigrants?
Nguyen: It was a shock at first. I compare myself a lot with Aleena, the Saeeds’ daughter. She reminded me of myself when I arrived in this country, and I thought: What’s the difference between her situation and mine? Her family came at a different time, with a different status and a different ethnicity, from the “wrong” country. But there’s no difference in terms of the hopes they had or the dangers they were fleeing.
Lefer: You speak in very measured tones about these awful situations.
Nguyen: That’s a result of personal discipline. I don’t want to preach. I try to learn how to speak what I see as the truth in a way that connects to people, so that they can’t dismiss it as a rant. I want to present the facts about the people who have experienced these terrible abuses and call attention to the questions their stories pose. I’m looking to find common ground. I can’t afford the luxury of letting off steam in public.
It’s also true that my background complicates my perspective. Though I’ve ultimately come to believe that the war in Vietnam — or, rather, the U.S.’s role in it — was wrong, I am also able to understand my parents’ perspective. For them it was a civil war fought against communism; for me it was a war of national liberation fought against U.S. imperialism.
Lefer: Does your background affect how you see the war in Iraq?
Nguyen: I marched in the streets to protest the invasion, but I’m not sure that the comparisons being made to Vietnam are apt. Maybe rhetorically they’re useful, to emphasize that Iraq is a quagmire, and that the U.S. doesn’t belong there, and that people will fight to the death to defend their country. Maybe these lessons from Vietnam are relevant. But the situation in the Middle East and the “war on terror” — the attacks, the fear — are different.
Lefer: Many U.S. citizens bristle when they hear undocumented immigrants talk about their “rights.” I think U.S. citizens are thinking of legal rights and constitutional rights, whereas immigrants are talking of human rights.
Nguyen: There’s also the sense in this country that you have to earn your rights. Angry citizens might say, “They come here and expect all these rights and freedoms; they use our public services — and they’re illegal.” This perspective is so far from mine that it takes a lot for me to try to understand it. I realize that refugee status was nothing I earned. It was granted to me. In reality, the decisions about who is granted refugee status are very arbitrary and politically motivated.
The idea of legal status is deceptive, because what’s legal has always been shaped by politics. The Constitution originally counted blacks as three-fifths of a person. What kind of legal status was that?
Lefer: And I did nothing to “earn” being born here.
Nguyen: In organizing the pro-immigration marches in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Latino immigrants asked the city’s Polish and German communities, whose ancestors had been new immigrants a hundred years ago, to look back on their own history and question just how and when they’d become “Americans.” They, too, had once been persecuted and discriminated against and given only low-paying jobs. I think it’s important for people to reflect on how they happened to come to this country. We don’t all just end up here and automatically get granted rights and privileges. Where do those privileges come from? The idea of legal status is deceptive, because what’s legal has always been shaped by politics. The Constitution originally counted blacks as three-fifths of a person. What kind of legal status was that?
Lefer: But there’s got to be some limit to immigration. The country doesn’t have the resources —
Nguyen: In fact the U.S., which has 5 percent of the world’s population, uses 25 percent of the world’s resources.
Lefer: But Americans understandably feel that we can’t provide housing and education and medical care and all the rest for an endless stream of immigrants. I can’t blame people for not wanting this country to become the repository for all the world’s refugees.
Nguyen: I don’t believe that’s the right way to view this situation. For one thing, it’s based on the false assumption that everyone wants to come to the U.S., that we’ll be flooded with immigrants, and that the sorry state of our public services is the fault of illegal freeloaders. In reality our public coffers are being looted to provide tax breaks for the rich; you can look at the post-Katrina situation in New Orleans to see a well-documented example of the kind of government-aided corporate looting that goes on.
Immigrating anywhere is not that attractive an option: it takes a lot of guts to leave your home, risk your life in the desert or at sea, go somewhere where you don’t know a soul, and live in debt. Much of what’s driving human migration is the fact that 80 percent of the world’s wealth is being controlled in the industrialized West by 20 percent of the world’s population. As a society we have to face up to the consequences of this global imbalance. We have to equalize conditions globally so that people aren’t pushed or pulled to this country. Much of the problem is rooted in the unequal “free trade” policies pursued by the U.S. and other Western countries, which create debt and enable multinational corporations to do business in global-South countries without regard for the workers and the people there.
Making a comprehensive, inclusive argument like this one to an American audience is tricky. People try to dismiss it. Even immigrants who’ve experienced the repression maintain distinctions: “Oh, I overstayed my tourist visa, but that’s not as bad as crossing the border illegally. I just made an administrative mistake. Criminal immigrants should get deported.”
Lefer: Criminal is a slippery word. When the government calls someone like Abdullah an “aggravated felon,” it sounds so violent, especially when you don’t know his story.
Nguyen: The language is dehumanizing, as is the whole immigration system. In the 1996 law, you are deportable if you’ve been convicted of an “aggravated felony,” even if the conviction occurred many years prior to 1996. The category includes serious crimes, but also shoplifting, marijuana possession, and lying to an INS officer. Even if you were convicted of a serious crime, you’ve already served your time in prison. Then you end up in detention and get deported; so you’re punished twice.
Lefer: Why shouldn’t we deport violent criminals? If you oppose the deportation of killers and con men and child molesters, then don’t you risk losing public sympathy for the law-abiding majority of immigrants?
Nguyen: It’s very difficult, especially in the current environment, to defend the “bad” immigrants. But over the long haul, I strongly believe that the immigrant-rights movement can’t cut out one segment of our communities to benefit the “law-abiding majority.” These lines between “law-abiding” and “criminal” are blurry, and they keep shifting. What used to be seen as minor civil infractions are now criminal offenses. Many green-card holders with administrative violations are being deported, too.
The problem of criminality and violence in our communities is something we have to deal with here, not by exporting the problem. When the Department of Homeland Security went after the Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha, accusing them of being terrorists, it underscored how wrongheaded this enforcement approach is. Who really believes that al-Qaeda might be trying to infiltrate the U.S. through a Salvadoran gang?
Lefer: OK, so Mara Salvatrucha isn’t affiliated with al-Qaeda. But gang members do terrorize neighborhoods. Urban gangs have been responsible for thousands of deaths. Why not target them?
Nguyen: I don’t deny that violence, drugs, and gangs — along with police brutality — are hurting communities. But turning to the Department of Homeland Security is not the answer. Here in Los Angeles, Alex Sanchez, a former Mara Salvatrucha member, was actually doing something to address the problem of gang violence by negotiating a truce and working with youth in his community through the organization Homies Unidos. Yet he was targeted by the Los Angeles Police Department and immigration agents, and was deported to El Salvador. He managed to return and win asylum, but it took a huge, community-wide effort. Hundreds of thousands of other young men like him — gang members or those “affiliated” with gangs, according to the government’s inaccurate and racist databases — have been sent back to El Salvador, Jamaica, and Honduras, where some have been imprisoned or killed by death squads.
Lefer: Do the databases identify gang members through arrest records or investigation?
Nguyen: You can be entered in a gang database just for “looking like” a gang member — in other words, if you’re a youth of color wearing baggy jeans or a certain cap. We live in a country that prefers to punish and incarcerate.
Lefer: You’ve written, “The number of black men in prison now matches the number of men enslaved before the Civil War.”
Nguyen: African Americans have borne the brunt of racial profiling and harsh sentencing measures, but immigrants are a rising percentage of the prison population. This presents an opportunity for people of different races to come together and oppose our law-enforcement culture. More immigrants are realizing that they could be pulled over on the basis of how they look, and that the consequences for them would be severe, the same as in black communities. It’s hard to have a sense of community when you’re living in constant fear of law enforcement. The fabric of a healthy society is being torn apart. Meanwhile, detention is a growth industry.
Lefer: Which brings me back to my first question about whether we are all suspects. Since the enactment of the Military Commissions Act, which apparently allows the president and the secretary of defense the unrestricted power to classify anyone as an “enemy combatant,” I’ve heard a number of progressive U.S. citizens worry that they could be detained for speaking out against the administration or contributing money to, say, a newspaper ad calling for impeachment of the president. Is that a reasonable concern?
Nguyen: Well, there’s a case in which student volunteers in Arizona have been charged with felonies for having aided migrants in the desert. They gave them water and transportation to a church, and now these two college students are facing a possible fifteen years in jail for smuggling. So I don’t think it’s extreme or paranoid to think that you could be targeted in this “war on terror.”
Lefer: It’s unusual to see stories like that in the mainstream press.
Nguyen: When you do see a story about immigration, even in the New York Times, they get comments from a group like the Minutemen to “balance” it. Somehow this loose organization of immigration opponents who “volunteer” to patrol our borders are considered a legitimate voice on the other side of the debate, even though to me they are just vigilantes with a sophisticated racist agenda.
Lefer: You’ve written balanced articles about anti-immigrant spokespeople, too. I thought your portrait of Chris Simcox, the president of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, started out quite sympathetically.
Nguyen: I thought the facts would speak for themselves. Now I regret having given him and his group publicity. I might not have included him in the book had I known how publicity helps them. They’ve really built up their influence just out of bombast.
Lefer: How did the scales tip in their direction? During the immigrant-rights marches, there seemed to be a great deal of sympathy and support nationwide.
Nguyen: The Minutemen and other anti-immigration groups have managed to pull the debate to the right. The immigrant marches were great, but the mobilization of people who have very little structural power is not enough to defeat the nativist Republicans with their well-funded anti-immigration movement, or the corporate Republicans with their guest-worker schemes, or the Democrats who support building a border wall. “Comprehensive immigration reform” got hijacked to include a lot of bad, piecemeal, or reactionary measures. In the end, not only did we not get a path to citizenship, but we’re still fighting tooth and nail to defeat the Sensenbrenner bill and other measures that would criminalize and punish immigrants while exploiting their labor.
Lefer: With or without a wall, it’s not unreasonable for a country to secure its borders, is it?
Nguyen: Let’s look at the reality. All this security buildup has encouraged migrants to go through smugglers, or “coyotes,” paying large sums of money and sometimes being left to smother to death in trailers, or getting killed in high-speed car chases. People have been dying in the desert by the thousands. At the same time, Mexico has not “secured” its border against NAFTA. Profits flow northward, but people are punished.
Lefer: I saw a documentary in which one of the anti-immigration leaders explained he’s “not a biological racist, but a cultural racist.”
Nguyen: Some of them have grown bold enough to identify themselves as racists. They have a very race-driven agenda.
Lefer: Isn’t racism an expression of fear? I look back to the 1965 immigration reform that for the first time opened the doors of the U.S. worldwide, instead of favoring certain European nations. The law changed overnight, but it took decades for the effects to be seen. Simply put, the face of the U.S. changed.
Nguyen: Yes, this is a fear I hear a lot when I speak to general audiences. People come up to me afterward and say, not wishing to be overheard, “I’m not a racist, but these people are changing my neighborhood; they don’t speak English; they don’t even want to learn English.” The country is changing in ways that they don’t understand. They feel that the future of the nation is up for grabs. So there’s a lot of fear and xenophobia, and progressives shouldn’t dismiss it. People feeling this way might reach out to the first thing they think defends their way of life — and that might be the Minutemen ideology. Inevitably, we’re all in this together. You know the projection: by 2050, only a little more than half the U.S. population will be non-Hispanic white. This is the era of the multiracial society, and it’s a challenge for white progressives to enter into this conversation.
The other fear for many people, of course, is terrorism. No one wants another terrorist attack. I’ve faced many questions about whether ethnic communities are safe havens for terrorists. People have heard alarming stories about London, England, and Hamburg, Germany, where terrorists lived in immigrant communities.
Lefer: To be blunt, aside from the appeal to people’s sense of justice and fairness, why should white citizens care about the mistreatment of immigrants?
Nguyen: People do care, but they’re also concerned about their safety. The mostly white audiences I’ve spoken to weren’t necessarily anti-immigrant or racist, but they were fearful about another attack. I did not sense among them an eagerness to give up their own civil liberties or live in a police state, but they were receptive to the idea of “giving law enforcement some more tools,” or even reinstating racial profiling, though they might not like it. It’s important to me to counter the idea that racial profiling is morally acceptable, or even an effective law-enforcement tactic. People are looking for real solutions — ones that go beyond the scary terrorism warnings or color-coded alerts, which help to fabricate a state of siege. I talk to people about feeling safe in their homes and communities, about feeling they can get help if they need it from neighbors or government — rather than worrying about raids, roundups, and spying on one another. And I talk about family. That’s something we all have in common: people want to support their families and not be separated from them, and they want their families to be safe and secure. So that’s where I try to begin the conversation.
Lefer: What was your own path in finding an identity that goes beyond the Vietnamese or Asian American community?
Nguyen: Remember, I grew up in Wichita. We were very isolated: a poor Asian family surrounded by mostly poor white families. Then we moved to Los Angeles and lived in Koreatown, where there were both Koreans and Latinos. The 1992 LA riots awakened me to problems of racial inequality, but in college it was exposure to Asian American activists and educators that really politicized me. I finally began to understand my Vietnamese experience through the lens of race. Then, when I came to work at ColorLines, I started to think about race not just as identity and culture, but also in a more political way.
We need to bring together immigrants of different races. There’s no automatic solidarity across communities. We arrive here with racial attitudes from other countries, where there might be hierarchy and stratification. Then, once we’re here, there’s a tendency for us to claim certain parts of U.S. history — such as the “nation of immigrants” narrative — as our own, but skip over the history of slavery, among other unpleasant realities. When the Applied Research Center held public hearings in opposition to the structural attack against immigrants, we had a Filipino airport worker talking about getting laid off, and then a Latino immigrant talking about increased government raids, and then a South Asian person talking about special registration. The specific effects on their communities might be different, but they are part of one fabric.
It takes a lot of guts to leave your home, risk your life in the desert or at sea, go somewhere where you don’t know a soul, and live in debt. Much of what’s driving human migration is the fact that 80 percent of the world’s wealth is being controlled in the industrialized West by 20 percent of the world’s population.
Lefer: Several years on, we see that special registration has been discontinued. We still have horrendous detention conditions outside the U.S., but with so many people having already been deported, and with the crackdown on new immigrants trying to get in, have the roundups and deportations tapered off?
Nguyen: They’re still happening. The enforcement system just keeps rolling along. Since 1996, more than 1 million people have been expelled. The situation is bleak, but now there has been a real demonstration of strength by the immigrant-rights movement. Something changes when you take action and show that you’re not afraid. It’s an exciting time because what we do now could make a difference. I’m inspired by a grass-roots group called Families for Freedom. They are faced with horrible stories all the time, but there’s great resilience there. Many of the people they’ve helped have become activists themselves. That’s where you find the hope: in the organizing potential, in people connecting with one another and understanding their situation. So, yes, there’s a backlash, but there’s also a movement, and what happens next is up for grabs.