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In America, We Don't Fear Refugees. We Welcome Them

The author's friend, Cuc, is pictured here, at work in Cambridge, circa 1990. (Courtesy)MoreCloseclosemore
The author's friend, Cuc, is pictured here, at work in Cambridge, circa 1990. (Courtesy)

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As President Trump moves to radically restrict asylum claims and the “caravan,” several thousand men, women and children fleeing persecution and poverty, trudges through Mexico to, in his words — “invade” the United States — I remember someone from an earlier wave of immigration who also risked her life for freedom and became my friend.

It was 1984 and my very young start-up company was commercializing technology I helped develop at MIT. We had spent the first year in stealth mode designing our initial product, hand-wiring circuit boards at 40 hours a piece and crafting laboratory instruments one by one. When we were ready to hire a technician, I called the Women’s Technical Institute, a vocational school at the time that trained women for jobs in the high-tech industry.

They sent Cuc, who had recently come to the United States from Vietnam. Sitting across from me in my cubicle, she looked very nervous.

I started with a basic question. “Did WTI teach you electronics?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know how to use a soldering iron?”

“Yes.”

I showed her some electronic components. “What are these?”

“Yes.”

A tiny woman, she was a head shorter and perhaps 15 years older than I was. Despite her limited English, she appeared sharp and eager to work. Something told me to take a chance on her. Maybe it was because she reminded me of my mother, or because she was a mother herself with three sons, the oldest possibly in third grade at the time.

Cuc started working for my company immediately, but only over several years could I piece together her story, related in fleeting memories during lunch or fragmented comments while we worked.

She’d been a teacher once upon a time and rode her motorbike through the crowded streets of Saigon. The Vietnam War had disrupted that world and in its aftermath, her family suffered from poverty and general devastation. Compounding their hardship, the communist government persecuted ethnic Chinese like herself, until Cuc was desperate to leave. That was in the early 1980s, which saw waves of Vietnamese fleeing to other countries in Southeast Asia.

Cuc, her husband and their very small boys also attempted to escape, but were caught and thrown in jail. After their release, they waited until Lunar New Year before trying again. While festivities distracted the country, a group of 30 or 40 people, Cuc’s family among them, slipped onto a boat under cover of darkness and took their chances on the South China Sea.

Vietnamese refugees scramble from a sinking boat which they beached at Kuala Trengganu, Malaysia, in December 1978. (AP)
Vietnamese refugees scramble from a sinking boat which they beached at Kuala Trengganu, Malaysia, in December 1978. (AP)

In Cuc’s telling, at one point on the open waters, a pirate vessel steamed toward them. Frantically, Cuc’s husband drenched her with a can of motor oil, thinking it made her too disgusting to molest. As pirates raided the boat in the search for valuables, they ripped open bags of possessions and dumped clothes overboard — not realizing everyone’s gold and jewelry were sewn into the hems.

Cuc was certain everyone would die, but they somehow reached Thailand.

Sometime later in the journey, the ransacked boat ran out of fresh water. Parched and thirsty, Cuc’s sons, who were already ill, drank sea water instead. “Terrible. Terrible,” she told us, sweeping one hand behind her, because she couldn’t find the English word for diarrhea.

Cuc was certain everyone would die, but they somehow reached Thailand. They’d beaten the odds. The boat could have capsized, been sunk by pirates or suffered mechanical failure and been lost at sea — the fate of many thousands of boat people who did perish. Cuc and her family were lucky. Even so, they languished in a Thai refugee camp for months, finally leaving only when someone sponsored them to come to America.

Members of a U.S.-bound migrant caravan stand on a road after federal police briefly blocked their way outside the town of Arriaga, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)
Members of a U.S.-bound migrant caravan stand on a road after federal police briefly blocked their way outside the town of Arriaga, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

For 25 years Cuc and I worked together, and over that time her English improved, her family bought and renovated a house in Dorchester and her boys grew up. Eventually, Cuc became a U.S. citizen and enjoyed our country’s protection when she took a vacation to Vietnam. Later, one son graduated from Harvard, then became an internet entrepreneur.

The United States, this country of 325 million people and 3.8 million square miles, is big enough to accommodate everyone seeking asylum, and I want to say that we as a people are big enough to accept them. However, today’s politics, as evident by the rhetoric deployed by Trump and others during the midterm election, betrays our values with overt racism and fear of “invaders.”

The caravan of only a few thousand people escaping dire conditions in Central America is a small fraction of the total trying to find refuge here. The Obama administration capped refugee admissions at 110,000 in its last year. Trump reduced that number to an historic low of 45,000 for 2018 and, in fact, the U.S. is on track to admit only about half that number. Even worse, Trump has reduced the cap further to only 30,000 for 2019.

The immigrants who cross oceans by boat or those who, even at this moment, traverse continents on foot show determination and courage that would only better our nation — if we let them.

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H. L. M. Lee Cognoscenti contributor
H. L. M. Lee is a writer, electronics engineer and owner of a small high-tech company. He also writes web content and marketing materials, and develops video scripts for a peer reviewed scientific journal.

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