This op-ed was originally published in The Baltimore Sun on March 5, 2018.
In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao emerged victorious in a civil war that lasted over 20 years. More than 300,000 Laotians fled to neighboring Thailand, where they lived in refugee camps before being resettled in other countries. Those who couldn’t escape were often sent to “re-education camps,” where they faced forced labor, torture and execution. Eight thousand miles away, my Laotian father, then an undergraduate at the University of Northern Iowa, contemplated his future: As U.S.-Lao diplomatic relations quickly deteriorated, his USAID-sponsored academic scholarship was in jeopardy, as was his legal status in the country. Without financial support or a legal right to stay in the U.S., a return to Laos would mean imprisonment in a re-education camp and possibly death.
But our country did the right thing: The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), allowed my father to stay, complete his studies and work. While in Iowa, he met my mother, a student from Thailand. They eventually married and moved to Portland, Ore., where they became naturalized citizens.
From receiving asylum and humanitarian protection, to qualifying for green cards and citizenship, members of my family have benefited from a range of services provided by the legacy INS and its superseding agency, USCIS. Eager to give back to my country through public service and to contribute to the work of an agency that made my parents’ lives in the United States possible, I spent the summer after my college graduation in 2014 working as a student trainee at USCIS headquarters, where I provided my colleagues with information on the gang violence driving unaccompanied immigrant children to flee Central America and seek refuge in the U.S.
USCIS provides invaluable services, not just to aspiring citizens like my parents, but also to those who seek humanitarian protection, or who want to work or study in this country. That’s why I’m dismayed by USCIS’s decision last month to fundamentally reframe its mission. The agency removed a passage that contextualizes its services as securing “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” and erased all mention of its responsibility to promote “an awareness and understanding of citizenship.”
In a corresponding email to his staff, USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna noted that while benefits applicants and petitioners should be “treated with the greatest respect and courtesy,” he reminded his colleagues to never forget that they “serve the American people.”
Combined with recent moves to end family reunification and DACA, changes to the USCIS mission statement underscore the Trump administration’s larger efforts to redefine who counts as American. Thus, Mr. Cissna’s comments imply two things: first, that the interests of “the American people” and those of immigrants applying for benefits or of U.S. citizens petitioning for their non-citizen family members are necessarily in conflict; and second, that immigrants like my parents — despite living here for over 40 years and successfully navigating a long, challenging naturalization process — will never be considered “real Americans” in the eyes of this administration.
While the perpetual foreigner stereotype is often weaponized against non-white populations more broadly, it is most frequently wielded against Asian-Americans, invoking painful historical memories, cutting at their sense of belonging, and intensifying their feelings of inferiority and isolation. Mr. Cissna’s email, coupled with his changes to the mission statement, conceptualizes Americanness as a matter of birth and lineage, rather than something to which anyone can aspire. Put more bluntly, his language and actions amount to a dangerous whitewashing of U.S. history.
My father and mother took their oaths of citizenship in 1982 and 1987, respectively. And they take their roles as citizens seriously: They vote in local and national elections, attend town halls held by their representatives and volunteer in their community. They also know that being an active citizen means speaking out when your government fails to live up to its values and teaching your children to do the same. While the Trump administration continues to otherize and dehumanize immigrants, officials can be assured that “real Americans” like myself and my parents will continue to use the tools we learned as citizens to preserve what’s best about our country.