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Viet Thanh Nguyen Says The U.S. Could 'Lose Its Soul' With Migrant Family Separations

Jun 9, 2018
Originally published on June 9, 2018 4:45 pm

The Trump administration's policy of separating families who are detained after illegally crossing the Southern border has become a lightning rod for the White House's critics.

Hundreds of children have already been separated from their parents since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy in May — though the practice has been going on for at least several months.

It was an expansion of what Sessions called a "zero-tolerance" policy — that the government will prosecute anyone attempting to enter the country illegally.

The policy prompted backlash from immigrant rights activists, who protested last week in more than two dozen cities.

Cecilia Munoz, a former domestic policy official in the Obama administration who dealt with immigration, told NPR it was "just outrageous to suggest that we can come up with decent care for kids when they're being separated from their parents."

She added, "I don't have words for how reprehensible that policy is."

Sessions has responded to critics, saying, "We don't want to do this at all. If people don't want to be separated from their children, they shouldn't bring them with them," he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

The practice brought back searing memories for Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pultizer Prize-winning author.

In 1975, as the war ended, his family fled to the United States from Vietnam. At 4 years old, he was separated from his parents and sent to live with another family.

It was done "benevolently," he tells NPR's Scott Simon, yet still prompted "howling and screaming" from him.

Nguyen now says he "worries about our nation losing its soul" after hearing about the Trump administration's separations.

"As a nation, we have had little significant debate on the morality or efficacy of such policies," he wrote last month in The Washington Post. "Perhaps this is because the removal of children from parents is not new in U.S. history."

He talked about his experience and the attitudes of other Vietnamese immigrants on Weekend Edition.


Interview Highlights

On why he was separated from his family

We, along with 130,000 other Vietnamese refugees fleeing from Vietnam, ended up in four refugee camps in the United States. And in order to leave one of these camps you had to have a sponsor. And in the case of my family, there wasn't a single American sponsor who could take all of us. So one sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my 10-year-old brother and one sponsor took 4-year-old me.

And the point was to help my parents get established in the United States without having to worry about me.

And now as the father of a 4-year-old son, I can see just how painful that experience must have been for my parents. But at the time I certainly knew it was painful for me, because this is where my own memories begin — howling and screaming as I was being taken away.

On the current policy

What goes through my mind now is that that was a very painful experience even though it was done benevolently. And now I see that children are being forcibly removed from undocumented parents who are entering this country or parents seeking asylum in this country.

And while we can have a debate about the merits of various kinds of immigration, I don't think there is a debate about whether we should be separating children from parents.

That's inhumane, it's immoral and the United States is simply doing the wrong thing.

On the administration's argument that parents should not bring children to the country illegally

I think that is an argument that reverts to the question of what is legal but not what is just. In many cases, parents are taking their children with them because they are seeking asylum. In other cases, they're taking their children with them because they want to keep their families together.

Simply because people are trying to enter this country doesn't mean that the United States has to lose its soul by trying to be as punitive as possible in order to try to deter these people from coming.

On the differences between older immigrants and recent immigrants

One of the things I think that marks the American character is a willful kind of amnesia. You know, we come here to the United States to start over as immigrants and there's oftentimes a tendency for people of the second and third generations to forget their origins.

And we certainly see this tendency exhibited by someone like John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, who himself is the descendant of Italian and Irish immigrants who were not very conversant in English and who came as working class laborers. And now a few generations later, their descendant is John Kelly, who is holding one of the highest offices in the land.

There are some former Vietnamese refugees who are saying that, "We were the good refugees and these new people from different countries are the bad refugees." And I think that's simply untrue.

In 1975, when we came here as refugees, only 36 percent of Americans wanted to accept us. If those opinions had been enacted as policy, none of us would be here today. And many Vietnamese refugees have forgotten that.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Trump administration's zero tolerance immigration policy has become one of its most controversial. The Federal Government has separated hundreds of children from their parents as they increase prosecutions of people who have entered the country without documentation. And that practice has brought back searing memories for Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. In 1975, his family fled to the United States from Vietnam. Mr. Nguyen was then just 4 years old and was separated from his parents and sent to live with another family for months until they could be reunited. He's written about that experience recently in The Washington Post. And Viet Thanh Nguyen joins us now from Palo Alto, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Take us back - and I know it's painful - to 1975. The war in Vietnam was ending. You and your family were refugees. How was it you got separated?

NGUYEN: Well, we, along with 130,000 other Vietnamese refugees fleeing from Vietnam, ended up in four refugee camps in the United States. And in order to leave one of these camps, you had to have a sponsor. And in the case of my family, there wasn't a single American sponsor who could take all of us. So one sponsor took my parents. One sponsor took my 10-year-old brother. And one sponsor took 4-year-old me. And the point was to help my parents get established in the United States without having to worry about me. And now, as the father of a 4-year-old son, I can see just how painful that experience must have been for my parents. But at the time, I certainly knew it was painful for me because this is where my own memories begin - howling and screaming as I was being taken away.

SIMON: What goes through your mind now?

NGUYEN: What goes through my mind now is that that was a very painful experience even though it was done benevolently. And now I see that children are being forcibly removed from undocumented parents who are entering this country or parents seeking asylum in this country. And while we can have a debate about the merits of various kinds of immigration, I don't think there is a debate about whether we should be separating children from parents. That's inhumane. It's immoral. And the United States is simply doing the wrong thing.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, the heart of the administration's argument, as the attorney general stated - it seems to be that it's the parents who endanger their children by bringing them across the border. How do you react to that?

NGUYEN: Well, I think that is an argument that reverts to the question of what is legal but not what is just. In many cases, parents are taking their children with them because they're seeking asylum. In other cases, they're taking their children with them because they want to keep their families together. Simply because people are trying to enter this country doesn't mean that the United States has to lose its soul by trying to be as punitive as possible in order to try to deter these people from coming.

SIMON: Your piece notes that there can be a difference between the attitudes of older immigrants and some people who are coming in or trying to come in now.

NGUYEN: Well, one of the things I think that marks the American character is a willful kind of amnesia. You know, we come here to the United States to start over as immigrants. And there's oftentimes a tendency for people of the second and third generations to forget their origins. And we certainly see this tendency exhibited by someone like John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, who himself is the descendant of Italian and Irish immigrants who were not very conversant in English and who came as working-class laborers. And now a few generations later, their descendant is John Kelly who is holding one of the highest offices in the land. There are some former Vietnamese refugees who are saying that we were the good refugees, and these new people from different countries are the bad refugees. And I think that's simply untrue. In 1975, when we came here as refugees, only 36 percent of Americans wanted to accept us. If those opinions had been enacted as policy, none of us would be here today. And many Vietnamese refugees have forgotten that.

SIMON: Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of "The Sympathizer" and "The Refugees." Thanks so much for being with us.

NGUYEN: Thanks for having me, Scott. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.