Viet Thanh Nguyen Says The U.S. Could 'Lose Its Soul' With Migrant Family Separations
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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.