By Tuyet G. Duong
Our life’s work is more fulfilling when it connects deeply into our own personal lives. As an immigration advocate, I find that these days, I connect everything to my recent and emerging motherhood and my deepest emotions as a wife and a daughter-in-law.
In keeping with the Asian American tradition, my husband and I invited his parents to live with us in Virginia and help raise our newborn Max Tina and Sam Nguyen. Two great American names. One great Vietnamese surname. So Tina and Sam packed up their lives in Portland, Oregon. Tina said goodbye to a 30-year stint as a housekeeper at the famous Benson Hotel. Sam is a retired Intel employee. They are both tired. And poor. We wanted to take care of them, and they wanted to take care of our baby. It worked out.
So every mother thinks that no person can ever take as much care of her own child. Simply put: who could ever love him as much? In Tina, whom I call ma, I found someone who meticulously loves my child. When I say meticulous, I mean every spec, every fold, every curl on his head, every eyelash, and every spot on my child’s body has been gone over, perused, washed, patted, kissed, loved, hugged, petted, and tenderly smoothed over. She bathes him like a monk would cleanse himself before an important rite. She feeds him like he’s an inmate partaking in his last meal. She soothes him to sleep with a high rhythmic toneless lullaby that is ever-patient and ever-loving. She plays with him deliberately, slowly, carefully, and with attention paid to every gesture and smile and giggle. You can see on this woman’s face that her greatest joy is my son. Oh my God, I love this woman who can love my child like that.
Then ma asked my husband, Bao, and me to promise to let her sister in Vietnam stay with us if she were to come to America, and to sign the Affidavit of Support and promise to financially support her sister for the rest of her time here in America — my husband balked. I am terrible with money, so I rely on his financial acumen in our joint household finances, and generally stay far away from that stuff. He bluntly told my mother to reconsider because we were already stretched thin having to care for five people already. At that point, my mother turned to me.
Tears streaming down her face, she said to me, woman to woman, “My sister, Y Lan, helped Bao and I come to America. When we had nothing left at all, she sold all of her gold jewelry to pay for our passage on a boat to the Philippines. She sacrificed her own passage to America to pay for both of us. Bao would not be able to be where he is or who he is if it were not for her. And I swore to her that until my dying day, I would make it my mission to help her and her family to come to America. That is the only thing I want in this world, to bring my sister and her family over. I owe them so much. We have been waiting almost ten years, and this is all I want. I swear it on Buddha, and everything I hold dear.”
As she said all of this, my heart cracked opened, erupted, and flowed over. I cried too. I cried over her sacrifices. I cried over how small and humble this request was to me, a woman who was now devoting her life to caring for my one and only son. I cried because I was a mother too. There was no way I could deny her. Her mission was mine: I would do what I could to help her sponsor her sister to America. And of course since I have veto power, my husband would have to as well.
The problem is, the family-based immigration system sucks in America. The backlog is 4 million applications long. Vietnamese siblings have to wait 10 years. And last year, the Senate tried to cut the sibling category. Siblings are in danger. Sisters and brothers around the world are in danger. Our very definition of “family” is in danger.
Luckily, Y Lan’s son came here a while back, and will become a citizen and can sponsor his parents soon. But they will still need financial support and backing from us, which we are more than willing to provide. But our story, their story, all of our stories – point to the glaring need for comprehensive immigration reform. And specifically, reform of our family immigration system. It is broken, it does not support families, and it does not support the reunification of families in a way that makes sense for any of us. My ma should not have to wait more than a decade to bring her sister to America. She has played by the rules. She has paid her taxes. She has worked hard for the hotel business for three decades. Her son, my husband, ironically works for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And he’s a good DHS employee. Our story is America’s story, and we need to make sure everyone knows that when the next battle in Congress happens. And we all need to rise up and be heard.