They Work Too Hard and Get Too Rich

September 08, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- In 1975, after the United States abandoned South Vietnam in the name of what the cynical and stupid called peace, refugees took to the boats by the hundreds of thousands. Eventually some of them, including the family of Ta Manh Chuyen, came here.

Naturally, the xenophobes had a field day. On the spring day that Mr. and Mrs. Chuyen and their three little boys arrived in Havre de Grace, a few chowderheads called the radio station to complain about it. As the family's American sponsor, I vividly remember how incensed I was by their cretinous comments, and how disappointed in my community.

But how irrelevant all that seems now. The family moved in, got jobs, learned English, sent the kids to school. Many local people helped them. Today the sons of Ta Manh Chuyen are college graduates, and the oldest has a child of his own. The chowderheads have long since stopped complaining about the Vietnamese and found other subjects to grouse about.

Immigration, which is suddenly a hot-button subject again this year, has always brought out the best and worst in people. Bill Glauber's interesting story in last Sunday's Sun about the growing Guatemalan community in rural Georgetown, Delaware, made that point crisply. The immigrants encounter both helpers and haters in small-town America, as well as a lot of generally friendly people who nevertheless don't care for change and have a powerful desire to be left alone.

Americans tell pollsters they believe immigration should be much more restrictive. Some (20 percent, in one CBS poll) even want recently-arrived foreigners sent home. Racist antipathies flare up and sometimes end in bloodshed. This is perhaps to be expected in New York, where the Irish and Italians used to bash each other's heads in, and blacks now exercise their civil rights by burning out Korean grocers, but it's dismaying when it occurs in more civilized parts of the nation.

Although they ought to know better, politicians take the polls at face value, and anti-immigration rhetoric is flowing especially freely this fall. But institutionally, neither of the two big American political parties seems to know what to think about the issue -- although both denounce illegal immigration with great vigor.

The Democrats seem to be in favor of immigration from Haiti, sort of, but against immigration from Cuba. And although they're supposed to be the party of the Little Guy, they're also the party of Big Labor, which doesn't approve of typical immigrant behavior -- willingness to work hard for low pay. And while labor's reservations make Democrats nervous, the dismaying tendency of many hard-working immigrants to get rich and register Republican makes them apoplectic.

As few Democrats want to pick up the immigration ball and run with it, the Republicans are currently trying to do so, but clumsily. Right now they're mostly running the wrong way. They used to talk a lot about the importance of hard work, and freedom, and the American Idea, but lately they're talking a lot more about sealing the borders.

Among the leading Republicans, Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan want to cut back legal immigration. California Governor Pete Wilson has made opposition to illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign for re-election, but has been silent about whether legal immigration should be scaled back. Only Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm come right out and say that America gains much more from immigration than it loses.

This is a serious issue, and needs to be talked out. Before 1965, annual legal immigration was less than 300,000 a year. Now there are probably that many illegal immigrants every year, and almost a million legal ones. That's a lot of people, although in our vast country it's far from a torrent.

In the years to come, immigration -- or the lack of it -- will have enormous cultural, economic and political implications for the United States. For the moment, the fact that no partisan consensus has emerged indicates that Americans are still ambivalent on the subject, but that could change quickly. By the time the next presidential campaign is fully under way, it probably will.

Ta Manh Chuyen, who came to the United States in 1975, lives in Virginia now. Not far away lives his brother-in-law, Vu Thuy Hoang, my good friend and a former colleague in the Washington Post's Saigon bureau. Mr. Chuyen has voted with his feet once, when he fled Vietnam. Mr. Hoang has done so twice.

In 1954, as a teen-ager, he left North Vietnam. He didn't know much about communism, but he knew he didn't want to live under it. And 21 years later he had to flee it once again, this time with a wife and children. Since then he and his family have made a good life for themselves in the United States, and enriched their adopted country in the process.

Success stories like those of the Hoangs and the Chuyens are of course innumerable. So too are the sadder tales of immigrants who didn't fare so well. But if we bang the doors to our country closed, there won't be many stories of either kind for future generations to tell, and the immigrants' descendants who dwell here then may find it a fairly sterile place.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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