Keeping Our Stories Alive

Refugee stories are often told as ones of courage.  But I have to confess that I don’t often think of my own story in the United States as one of courage.  Confusion and fear, sure – but not courage.

In honor of my family’s 30-year anniversary of being in the United States, I started thinking about my family story, and realized I didn’t know that much. I knew that our family left Vietnam on April 30, 1975, the day Saigon fell– each of us armed with a change of clothes, a can of condensed milk, and packets of ramen noodles.  I knew we were able to escape, because one of my uncles had been a captain in the Navy: he negotiated a place for us on a fishing boat in exchange for his navigation skills. 

We had been out at sea for several days when a Taiwanese ship pulled alongside.  They were sent out with orders to pick up any refugees who were of Chinese descent.  Of the hundreds of us on the boat, there were only two–a father and daughter.  The Taiwanese offered them passage onto their boat, but the family refused to go, unless we could all go with them.  The Taiwanese relented and led us to the Philippines where we were processed as refugees, and within less than two days, we were on our way to the United States.

What I didn’t know about my story of migration has struck me as especially profound in the midst of our national debate over immigration reform.  I found out which of my uncles was the navy captain.  And I learned that the original deal he was offered didn’t include us.  Originally, he was told he could only bring his own immediate family onto the boat.  But he refused to leave us behind. He turned down that offer, and risked his own chance to escape in order to get seven siblings and their families onto the boat.

My destiny was shaped by the courage of a brother, who was willing to sacrifice for his brothers and sisters.

Current House and Senate Comprehensive Immigration Reform bills eliminate the family-based immigration category for siblings. Our families serve us in so many different capacities, social, cultural and economic it’s impossible to imagine a journey as fraught as migration without them. Yet Asian Americans, who sponsor almost one-third of all family-based immigrants each year experience some of the longest wait times due to Visa backlogs, up to 23 years in some cases. As the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Chicago it is my job to fight for the policies that create an equitable society, and I know that we have a vital stake in keeping our families together.

Asian Americans are growing at a rapid clip in Illinois, largely because of immigration.  With these numbers come political growth and maturity. 64% of Asian Americans in the Chicago-area are foreign born, making this is a critical time to flex our civic muscle and make our voices heard.

I can’t imagine an issue more personal or more galvanizing than protecting our families. This Wednesday is another critical moment of courage as activists join together to escalate our action at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices on Congress Parkway and shed attention on the families and stories that are often overlooked in our community.  Join us in challenging our city, our state, and our nation to live out its fullest promise of providing opportunity to all.

Tuyet Le

Executive Director Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Chicago