Make America Great Again For Whom?

For immigrants and refugees like my friends and family, the American Dream is already dead.

Six years ago, when I was barely 18, I wandered into a tattoo shop with a printout of the words “Life, Liberty, and Happiness” in hand. During a medical mission trip, I had witnessed what I’d interpreted to be a faithful representation of these American ideals even among the poorest indigenous people in Vietnam, and coming back, I felt so strongly about the universality of these three words that I deemed them deserving of a permanent, if arbitrary, spot on my right foot. What’s more, I transformed the experience into a college entrance essay that was littered with clichés, including this stunner: “The Vietnamese people had so little, but were so happy!” No wonder Columbia sent me a fat rejection in the mail that year. 

 I’ve spent most of my young life so far under America’s spell. But I simply took after my father, who, a generation ago, had believed he could make it in America too. When my father, a Vietnamese boat person, first claimed asylum, he’d thought he was destined for the land of the free. But his love for the home of the brave was unrequited, and so he settled, begrudgingly, for second-best: Canada.

In January 2014, I visited Dharamshala, India, and volunteered to lead English conversation classes with Tibetan refugees at the nonprofit Lha. I remember the first time I walked up Lha’s flight of stairs and entered the tiny, sparsely decorated classroom. 

 “Hi,” I said, giggling nervously, “ My name is Kim.”

“Hi Kim,” 20 voices responded cheerfully in unison.

“I’m from Canada,” I started. A couple people in the room looked impressed and glanced at each other knowingly. “But I study in the United States,” I added. 

“Oh, America,” a monk bellowed from across the room. Other voices echoed his, and everyone in the room began to nod furiously in recognition. 

Then, when I asked everyone what country they would like to visit, the overwhelming majority gave me the same, powerful one-word answer: “America.” 

Many of my refugee students had left communist China-controlled Tibet and weathered a treacherous, month-long journey through the Himalayan Mountains to seek refuge at the Dalai Lama’s residence-in-exile in Dharmashala.

But ultimately, like my father and me, they dreamed of making it to America, the land of opportunity.  

In 2016, the United States admitted nearly 40,000 Muslim refugees, half of them coming from Syria and Somalia alone. Closer to home, “economic” migrants continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico Border in order to escape violent civil strife back home in El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala.

For these migrants, the chance of making it here seemed worth the risks. After all, for a while, America looked pretty damn good, especially through the lens of TV and the Internet. America’s appeal was at once wholesome and glamorous, reinforced by mega-famous celebrities and sitcoms of families living in big suburban houses with white picket fences. And everyone around the globe knows that America is still the seat of the world’s power. You’ve got all the big guns, and you wage all the mightiest wars in the name of democracy. You export Peace Corps volunteers and “U.S. AID FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.” 

In America, everyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps, that everyone has a chance of making it as long as they work hard.

But your most powerful export of all was the American Dream: the narrative that in America, everyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps, that everyone has a chance of making it as long as they work hard.

Now that’s starting to change. Refugees flying across the world to meet America’s supposedly safe arms and diverse faces are learning upon arrival that a good portion of America is actually white and racist and poor. Migrants in search of an America that is free and fair to the masses are ill-prepared for the racism, class discrimination, sexism and poverty embedded in your institutions because — oops — they’re hidden in the fine print, obscured by lofty claims of equality and liberty. 

These days, the fine print is becoming more and more clear.  In early 2017, barely a month into his administration, your new president wrote executive orders to construct a physical wall on the southern border, indefinitely suspend the program to resettle Syrian refugees and ban immigrants from six majority-Muslim nations. 

When the European Parliament voted to end visa-free travel for Americans, Americans across the country responded with shock and horror. I was not surprised by the decision, or by your reactions; your own medicine tastes pretty bitter, doesn’t it? Americans expect unbridled access to the world and assume foreign borders are open unless proven closed, yet half of you voted for a president who’s now shutting America’s own doors.  

It’s easy to joke about the unfathomable horror of a Trump presidency when you’re not a part of the punch line.

And when the results of the election came in on November 8th, 2016, Americans set a record high for Google searches of “how to move to Canada.” On Twitter, Americans joked around about the different ways to claim refugee status in Canada; app developers even came out with Maple Match to save Americans from “the unfathomable horror of a Trump presidency.”

It’s easy to joke about the unfathomable horror of a Trump presidency when you’re not a part of the punch line.

For others, leaving the United States is not a joke, but a very real possibility as the political climate here becomes increasingly unsympathetic and the government increasingly hostile.  

Hundreds of refugees living in the United States have already begun to venture north to Canada. Misled by the rhetoric of the American Dream and betrayed by the American people, once again, they’ll defy extreme temperatures and dance with death. A lot is at stake. But if they’re lucky, they will have a new chance to seek out, like my father once sought out, what they couldn’t find in America. In Canada, maybe their American Dreams can become reality.