Is the American Dream Still Alive?
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Dear Cousin D.,
What is it like to be an immigrant in America these days? Is it still worth coming, and is the dream still possible?
Your questions, I must admit, gave me pause. Who, after all, would have thought to ask them a few years back from Vietnam? Didn't the American Dream, or rather, the dreaming of coming to America, cause the movement of millions in our homeland, and stir the soul of many millions more? It breaks my heart then to hear that you might not come. It is to me the worst news yet about my adopted country.
Yet it's undeniable. The nation of immigrants is turning its back on immigrants once more. There is a fundamental shift here, and I fear it is for the worst. Since that terrible day of Sept. 11, 2001, that ominous cloud from the debris of those fallen twin towers seems to have hovered permanently over our once blue and gracious sky.
The condition, compared to just a few years ago, is no longer what you would call optimal. The borders are much harder to cross for many, and the threat of terrorism has shaken our sense of safety to the core. The immigrant's hold on American soil, as a direct result, has become increasingly tenuous, if not outright threatened.
Cousin, have you heard the metaphor of the canary bird in the mine? When it stops singing, it means the oxygen is going out of the place, a warning to all.
In America, and in the context of a free and open society, often the immigrant is that canary. In economic down times he is often the first to be blamed. And in the U.S. war against terrorism, he is fast becoming the scapegoat.
In the name of protection and security, immigrants' rights are being eroded as I write. The new U.S.A. Patriot Act has devastating results as arrests can be made without warrants, and suspects can be held without charges for prolonged periods. Unchecked surveillance and secret detentions by the U.S. government of Arabs and Muslims in America are growing. I know many Muslims are now afraid to pray at their own mosque for fear of FBI surveillance. I've seen feeble old South Asian women whose hands trembled at the airport when they give their green cards to immigration officers, fearing of sudden arrest and deportation. These days an immigrant can lose his job because he is not yet a U.S. citizen, and if he speaks his opinion, he can very well be fired.
Worse, what once were minor infractions can now turn into a major disaster. For instance, failing to report to the INS your change of address when you move could mean being deported back to a country from which you fled -- a cruel and unusual punishment if you happen to be an Iranian or Syrian refugee fleeing from a vindictive regime.
Cousin, I do not know how effective homeland security is, but I know that it has already brought much insecurity to large segments of society. Within our own community, far from the turmoil and passion of the Middle East and South Asia, I nevertheless also hear a prudent whisper, and it's the kind that sends a chill down my back: They know. Cousin C. was looking at my library card the other day, and he said: "They know."
Know what, I asked.
"With the new technology, the government can tell what books you are checking out of the library, what you buy," he said. "Be careful. They know."
This, mind you, is the same man who was inspired during the high-tech boom, by the new information revolution that was changing the world for the better, and giving equal footing to so many. Today, laid-off from a software engineering job, he sees the technology he admired so much has turned into war machines for an empire. It turns into drones and satellites to seek out enemies abroad, and at home. It turns into an ominous electronic eye -- the all-seeing eye of homeland security that never blinks -- that can monitor and spy on immigrants and perhaps, soon, everyone else living in America.
A new program called Total Information Awareness might be installed here, especially if there is another terrorist attack. It is being developed by a Pentagon division, one that amazingly gave birth to the Internet. Alas, it is now led by a man named Poindexter, a former Iran-contra figure who was convicted of five felonies, including lying to Congress and shredding documents. And no one, mind you, deported him!
I suppose it takes a criminal mind to catch a terrorist, but I fear that the program will, in the process, turn this country into a kind of police state that would make communist Vietnam look like Club Med. Electronic internment camp is a turn of phrase I hear whispered among many Arab Americans.
You don't have to be behind barbed wire like the Japanese Americans during World War II anymore, they say, but the effect is essentially the same.
They know. And so it is true, cousin, in America, the sky has eyes, and walls have ears. And the ground, too, can feel the tremor of your every footsteps. Ruben Martinez, a Mexican American friend and writer, told me he once walked a few feet back and forth across the border of Mexico and Texas in the middle of nowhere, and a few minutes later border patrol cars surrounded him. "How did you know that I was here?" he asked. "We have sensors that feel vibration along the border," said the border patrol man, "and you sir, have just violated a law."
A young Chinese American student at UC Berkeley, in the discussion of a video game, mentioned the word "bomb" several times on the phone, and within the next hour three police officers knocked at her dormitory door. She and her roommate were interrogated thoroughly. She still doesn't know how they know, but, apparently, they know.
Alas, the general public is little aware of what is going on in the lives of those on the sweeping reach of government dragnets. In their yearning for safety and protection, they already supported the new law that imprisons anyone without due process, and punishes dissent. Perhaps they don't want to know. But when a society hides behind the apparatus of draconian policy, one that has no check and balance, the only logical outcome is injustice and cruelty.
Over the years I find it beneficial to look at this country through two different lenses: America versus the United States. The United States is a sovereign with permanent interests that is currently waging a war on terrorism.
And it will trample upon innocents in its path, be it at home or abroad, if need be, in order to win it. In the process, the newcomer to this country, one without a voice and resources, often becomes collateral damage.
America, on the other hand, is everything you and I ever dreamed of -- transparency, freedom, democracy, opportunity, due process, fair play and a premise of progress. America is where you work hard and earn respect, find a job and raise your kid in peace, and the government does not raid your home to take you away in the middle of the night because of the way you look, or the religion you practice. America tolerates differences, understands diversity and does not assume you are guilty before proven innocent.
The two versions exist in a kind of complex dance. In good times, America leads and in bad, America is forgotten and the United States dances alone. These days, I fear that to be a patriotic immigrant is to love the ideals of America despite what the United States is doing in the name of patriotism and security.
While I understand the logic of permanent interest, if America is destroyed in the process, then what is the use? And as far as I am concerned the only good patriotism is a civilized one. Blind patriotism always leads to a bloody end and unchecked government that functions behind the veil of secrecy and should never be tolerated. To be patriotic is to dare ask questions. Must rights be abused in the name of security? What is it that is protected when freedom is given up wholesale?
Dear cousin, I hope I haven't completely frightened you, but the situation requires honesty. To reach the American shore these days is a much more difficult undertaking, with fewer ready-made promises at the horizon. People are still coming, albeit at the threat of deportation and false arrests. They come, in spite of everything, because their willpower is made of fire and steel.
I still want you to make this difficult journey, but you must be prepared for the challenges ahead. And I'll let you in on a secret about this American Dream you spoke so fondly of: It is you who must renew it. Without you, who dream the American dream, the country is in danger of becoming old. Without your energy, we would weaken. Even if we don't know it yet, we all desperately need to be reborn through your eyes.
So, is the American Dream still alive?
No, cousin, not really. Not without you at the table, not without you prospering, not without you.
Bay Area writer Andrew Lam works at Pacific News Service. He is also making a PBS documentary about Vietnam.