Deportation and Dr. King’s American Dream

Aug 28 Deportation and Dr. King’s American Dream

Author: 
Mari Quenemoen

Wednesday, August 28th marks the 50th anniversary of the “Great March on Washington,” led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a coalition of civil rights, labor and religious organizations to pass civil rights legislation, desegregate schools and address entrenched poverty among African Americans. At this march in 1963, which drew over 250,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King gave his groundbreaking “I Have a Dream” speech, articulating his vision of an America that lives up to its foundational promises of liberty and justice for all, regardless of race.

Fewer people know that Dr. King later became an ardent opponent of the war in Southeast Asia. Not only did the war bring senseless death and destruction to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, he argued, but also the buildup in military spending “eviscerated” the innovative anti-poverty plans that were piloted after the March on Washington. He called on the U.S. to end the “war on the poor” immediately, and to welcome to the U.S. those who would flee post-war Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Members of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) prepare for the march.

When the war finally ended, its aftermath brought the largest wave of refugees the U.S. has ever seen. Today, more than 2.5 million Americans trace their heritage to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, many of whom fled in fear with their families after communist regimes took over Vietnam and Laos and the genocidal Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. The U.S. offered a safe haven and a promise of a better life: the American dream, much like the one Dr. King envisioned in 1963.

Unfortunately, resettlement in the U.S. was not easy. War-traumatized families could only afford housing in high-crime urban neighborhoods with little access to culturally appropriate food, health care or other services; and many kids entered failing schools that were ill prepared to support them. Although some youth overcame the odds and thrived, others fell prey to their environment, seeking out protection in gangs and economic opportunity in drugs. The 1980s “war on drugs” resulted in a surge of aggressive policing and criminalization among young men of color, including both African Americans and Southeast Asian Americans, and led to unprecedented rates of incarceration—now the highest in the world. Dr. King would be very disappointed to see that, despite the gains of the civil rights movement, today one out of every three black American men can expect to spend some time in our swollen jail system.

Thousands of people from all over the nation march for justice, peace, and freedom.

In this context, children who fled the aftermath of the Vietnam War entered a “school to prison pipeline,” but with one extra step: deportation. Since 1998, more than 13,000 Southeast Asians have been ordered deported from the U.S. based on run-ins with law enforcement, many when they were in their teens and early 20s. The Cambodian community has been hit particularly hard by a deportation crisis. Since the U.S. signed a repatriation agreement with Cambodia in 2002, hundreds of Cambodian Green card holders have been taken from their families and sent to Cambodia, leaving behind citizen children, aging parents, jobs, school and even small businesses, because of old criminal convictions from their youth. Immigration judges have little power to stop a deportation in many cases, even if the deportation is clearly unjust and disproportionate to the original crime. The Cambodian community suffers from high poverty and low high school graduation rates, and deportation has left hundreds of children without fathers and mothers without sons, exacerbating a cycle of poverty.

Asian Americans share the Dream too.

Critics of immigration reform may argue that noncitizens who break the law have no place in our society. However, according to the Immigration Policy Center, 68 percent of legal permanent residents who are deported are deported for minor, non-violent crimes. All noncitizens, including those who arrived as children and as refugees, complete their time in the criminal justice system before entering deportation proceedings. We believe that everyone who has paid society’s debt and poses no threat to the community deserves a second chance—not double punishment and a lifelong sentence of banishment from their loved ones.

America promised a safe haven for refugees whose lives were destroyed by the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Today, those who survived not only war and genocide, but also the devastating first decades of resettlement, deserve a second chance to build strong families and communities in the tradition of Dr. King's original American Dream.

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