Abe Kwok: How does ridding the country of people like me – who came here by so-called chain migration – make America any more prosperous or safe?
I’m an American. I’m also apparently part of our immigration problem.
I’m still perplexed as to how. More why than how, really.
I’m equally perplexed as to how ridding the U.S. of people like me would make our country more prosperous and more secure.
It’s a solution Donald Trump continues to tout, even if his wife Melania’s parents became citizens by the exact process that brought me to the United States.
‘Chain migration’ is an ugly phrase
In Trump’s State of the Union address, he proposed changing the family-immigration system that allows legal immigrants to sponsor family members for green cards, an act that some call “chain migration.” Alejandro Barahona/azcentral
I’m talking about his plan to end chain migration. Or family reunification. Sponsorship by any other name that in some quarters now breeds contempt and suspicion. Or worse.
I don’t see the practice as lax or irresponsible. Certainly not alarming or dangerous, as many of our country’s political leaders have now come to conclude.
The one truth in the political narrative is this: Family members bring over the extended family, one by one. The rest of the story is far less sinister.
In my family’s case, the person most culpable — from my perspective, the person I’m most indebted to — is my mother’s eldest biological brother, Leslie Yee, whom I saw a handful of times and thought of mostly as a distant memory, as is often the case for children with adults other than their own parents.
Uncle Leslie started our chain
Uncle Leslie came to the U.S. from the Guangdong province in southern China in 1939, at the time a sprite, really. He arrived in Seattle and, though he loved the area — I suspect the proximity to the water, which was reminiscent of his ancestral home, had something to do with it — he, like many immigrants, took the more practical road.
He joined the U.S. Coast Guard in WWII and settled afterwards in Arizona, first in Phoenix, then in Casa Grande. There, he bought the famed Owl Cafe on Main Street in 1950 and ran that and the accompanying boarding house for some nine years before constructing a modest 25 by 60-foot restaurant of his own on Pinal Avenue that served American and Chinese food.
A dogged worker — the restaurant opened 7 days a week — Uncle Leslie also labored at his first love, accounting. According to a profile in the Casa Grande Dispatch in 1971, he took on clients from the town as well as others who were scattered across Arizona.
Even at 9, I had to prove myself
With his earnings, he had married and raised a family of two children. Beginning in the ‘60s, he started sponsoring his siblings to join him, first with my aunt Cuan Kok. Even then it took a good while, so long that by the time she got approval four to five years later, she had already migrated to Canada.
Uncle Leslie in the ‘70s sponsored his mother — my grandmother — who was already in her 70s; another of my aunts, Hanna Ho, and her family; and then my mother and our family. He spent thousands of dollars on each sponsorship, trekking to San Francisco to meet with an immigration attorney and typing out the family tree on onionskin paper as part of the application.
My family immigrated in June 1975 and settled in Tucson. I was 9. Before we were approved, my parents had amassed volumes of information — bank accounts, passports, professional and education background, business and personal affiliations and associations, and letters attesting to our character and community standing.
On my mother’s side — she was one of 12 children that her father had from two wives — none of the siblings remained in China. Those still alive are all living in the U.S. save for my aunt Kok, who still resides in Canada.
Our family’s the rule, not the exception
My youngest uncle, Joe Yee, operated two Farmer’s Market grocery stores and apartments in Tucson; Aunt Hanna ran Chinese Village Restaurant and another, also in Tucson; my late mother and my dad operated China Restaurant in east Tucson. None of them, or their children, had serious brushes with the law. Or depended on government subsidies. Or pledged their loyalty and allegiance to China instead of the United States, or consider themselves anything but American.
That’s because we are Americans. We became naturalized citizens, waiting for years as legal citizens to become even eligible. We all call America home.
I don’t believe our extended family is an outlier. We represent the chain-migration rule, not the exception.
That the immigration debate has pitted legal immigrants — citizens, in many cases — against those who entered unlawfully is unsettling. That chain migration has become demonized is unforgivable; and that some continue to peddle that false narrative is unconscionable.
The angriest Americans may see chain migration as something sinister. But my Uncle Leslie, who spent his final years bringing over among the last of his siblings, viewed it as nothing less than family responsibility.
His actions and intent should not be debased.
Reach Kwok at email@example.com.
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- What you need to know about Arizona’s Asian American candidates
- NAACP can’t afford this much bad blood in its Arizona offices
- What Don Shooter’s apology didn’t say about sexual harassment claims
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