By Andrew Do
America is strong because we embody the best of the human spirit. This is the lesson I learned from Mrs. Jean Kling, a retired school teacher from Enterprise, Alabama.
Like thousands of other Vietnamese refugees in 1975, my family of six spent months in refugee camps all across the South Pacific. We were ultimately sponsored to Fort Rucker, in Enterprise, Alabama, where my parents were able to find work in a local cotton mill.
Enterprise was a very small town then. Our main shop was the local Five & Dime. Sears was a special outing to Dothan, the next town over. My parents worked long hours, leaving before we got up and coming home late in the afternoon. My brothers and I were left wandering the neighborhood in search of something to do. We must have made for a sorry sight, for Mrs. Kling took us into her house each afternoon and gave us pecan pie and milk.
In the beginning of 1976, Mrs. Kling took my two brothers and me down to the local bank and bought each of us a set of Bicentennial coins. She then sat us all down to explain to us why 1976 was an important year and that America was a special place, where we embraced immigrants and worked together to take care of each other as a community.
Mrs. Kling was an extraordinary woman but hardly unique. Her kindness and that of innumerable Americans like her paved the way for 1.3 million Vietnamese-Americans to become an integral part of the economy and social fabric of this nation. Alabama taught me that America isn’t simply a country; it’s an ideal that has propelled us as a nation throughout history.
Today's debate over immigration gives short shrift to this part of our history and overlooks our true nature as a people. Before we solve the problem, we need to fix the tone of the debate. Legitimate concerns over security of our borders and protection of our social services system should not be summarily dismissed as justification for bigotry and intolerance. That narrative is not an accurate portrayal of the America I have known for the past 42 years.
As political refugees, my family was granted asylum, but we still had to be processed, which explains the months we spent in refugee camps. Background checks were run; and immunization shots were given, all to prepare us to be accepted by any nation that would agree to take us. We waited patiently while we worked through the process. We recognized that national security comes first.
It is through this personal experience that I seek a proper perspective in the current debate over DACA and other proposals to provide pathways to citizenship for undocumented residents in the U.S. While reasonable minds can differ, no policy, whether by city or state, should encourage defiance of national law. A nation with no respect for its laws cannot continue to exist. Respect for law and process is an all or nothing proposition. Selective adherence to law is a slippery slope to anarchy and tyranny.
However, I, like many conservative Orange County Republicans, want a DACA deal. There are approximately 800,000 DACA recipients across this country, with California being home to the largest number of over 220,000. Of these about 21,000 reside in Orange County. Employment law and immigration policies have turned a blind eye for decades to undocumented immigrants, who settled in our towns, worked, and contributed to the vitality of our communities. When our immigration system is overhauled, we should take into account the human impact on those who have spent most of their lives here.
Many Republicans realize that expelling millions of undocumented residents will cause tremendous harm to our society. The disruption and damage to the future of thousands of immigrant children will be a burden that we will carry on our conscience for years to come. DACA children will be victimized when they are "returned" to countries they never really knew, and American children of undocumented residents will either be separated from their parents or taken involuntarily to foreign lands.
A pathway to citizenship should also be provided to all those who can prove they have lived here at least ten years, been gainfully employed and not relied on public assistance. To protect our social system going forward, automatic citizenship for birth tourism and chain migration should end. Those who sponsor their families here must be financially responsible for all of their health and living needs.
As chairman for the Orange County Board of Supervisors, the sixth largest county in the U.S., I am an example of immigration done right; however, we cannot humanely rectify decades of flawed policy with a stroke of a pen.
We need to overhaul of our immigration system soon, but we need to protect our Dreamers now.
Andrew Do is a former Orange County Deputy District Attorney and one of the highest ranking elected Vietnamese-Americans in the nation. He currently serves as Chairman of the all-Republican Board of Supervisors in Orange County, California.